LUMBERTON — As a crowd of more than 120 people filled the cafeteria of W.H. Knuckles Elementary School on Saturday, one might think a family reunion was being held at the Lumberton school.
The event brought together generations of an extensive family tree from Robeson County and beyond. But the group wasn’t there just to reminisce. Folks were there to celebrate a milestone in their family history as well as the state’s.
After decades of research and a year of appealing to the state, a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker was erected at 1520 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive recognizing the Thompson Institute, which was formed to educate blacks in the post Civil War era. The school trained teachers and pastors who worked all over North Carolina and the country.
“It is a phenomenal event to know that Robeson County and the state value and honor the contributions of people who served in a very, very hard time in this country,” said Demetria Taylor, the great-great-granddaughter of the Rev. Alexander H. Thompson, who helped found the Thompson Institute in 1881, along with his nephew Elias Thompson.
The marker is Robeson County’s 15th and places the Thompson Institute on an “illustrious list” with just six other preparatory schools that have markers, according to Michael Hill, with the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.
Born a slave in 1828, Alexander Thompson established five churches and ultimately the Lumber River Missionary Baptist Association in 1877, which founded the Thompson Institute just four years later.
The Thompson Institute was renamed South Lumberton Elementary School in 1950 and, in 1994, became W.H. Knuckles Elementary School, named after the Rev. William H. Knuckles, who served as principal of the Thompson Institute for 30 years.
After a plaque was hung at the elementary school in January 2014 to honor Thompson, his descendants began the process of securing the state historical marker.
Carletta Thompson, Thompson’s great-granddaughter, said she was turned down twice before the Department of Cultural Resources decided to have the cast aluminum sign built. Thompson, like Taylor, has been researching her family’s lineage long before the information they found would serve as proof of the Thompson Institute’s statewide historical significance, which is required for such a marker.
“Those teachers left here and went all across the state of North Carolina to teach and establish schools — and beyond,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, who helped Carletta secure the marker. “… The Thompson influence really went to a lot of places across the country.”
Rep. Charles Graham was impressed that efforts that began in church would go to have an evolving significance in the community for more than a century.
“It certainly laid the framework for the black community to encourage and promote education and promote literacy,” he said.
According to Bradford Thompson, the great-grandson of the Rev. Elias Thompson, students came from as far as New York City to attend the Thompson Institute.
“And they were rewarded with an outstanding education,” he said.
The Thompson Institute curriculum was rigorous. Information that Demetria found shows that in 1914, teachers were instructing students on everything from Latin to geometry to psychology. Relatives also collected “artifacts” like class photos from 1913, 1914 and 1924, and Demetria’s favorite — her grandmother’s 1914 Thompson Institute diploma, which her aunt had stowed away. Artifacts and information about the school were displayed at the event.
Bradford called the decision to open a school for blacks just 16 years after the end of the Civil War “a wild idea.”
“It showed the power and the determination of these gentlemen,” he said.
Now anyone driving on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive can have a “roadside history lesson,” as former Rep. Frances Cummings described the marker. That history will also soon be a book — Demetria announced during the event that she had secured a publisher for work compiled by her and Carletta.
“Generations yet unborn, when they come back here, this building might be gone but that plaque will stay there and they will know that former slaves were able at a time when there was no money to put together nickles and dimes to establish this great institution,” Pierce said.
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.