The ribbon cutting ceremony for the recently restored Neely School near China Grove in Rowan Countywas held on August 1, 2015.The Neely School is a one-room school built about 1908 by Julius Neely, an African American farmer and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church minister. The event marked the culmination of five years of work by Mary Neely Grissom and the other grandchildren of Julius and Katie Neely to preserve and restore the little school building. The Historic Neely School Foundationwas incorporated as a nonprofit organization, grants and donations were secured, and the school building was relocated a short distance from its densely wooded site and was restored.

The establishment of the school was quite an accomplishment for a black man in the early twentieth century in Rowan County, North Carolina. Augustus Julius Erastus “Rastus” Neely (1872-1958)and Katie Stokes McKenzie Neely (1869-1959) were the children of freed slaves. Julius Neely and Katie McKenzie were married in 1893, and they had seven children, Annie Emaline Neely (1894-1949), Jonas Winslow Neely (1896-1966), Thomas Leroy Neely (1900-1993), Lorena Cassie Bell Neely (1903-1990), Mary JannetteNeely (1906-1971), Henry Albert Neely (1909-1989), and Julian Archie Neely (1913-1985).

The school was established by Julius and Katie Neely to educate their children and others in their small community of Neelytown, in an era when there were few schools in Rowan County, and the educational opportunities for black children was very limited. The Neelys understood the importance of education, and wanted opportunities for their children that they did not have. Julius Neely constructed the one-room schoolhouse on his family farm with the help of donations from family and friends of both races. The Rowan County school superintendent had agreed to provide a teacher if the Neelys would provide a building for the school. He built a simple building sheathed in rough siding, with three large windows on each side to provide light and ventilation, and a small entrance vestibule topped by a belfry. The inside of the school building was finished simply with unpainted beaded-board walls and ceiling, wood floors, and a raised platform at the rear for the teacher with a simple blackboard painted on the wall. A wood stove in the center of the room provided the only heat in the winter. The school was in use from about 1908 until 1948, offering grades 1 through 7.

Knowledge was power and many states, including North Carolina, enacted “slave codes” making it illegal to teach slaves to read or write. A law passed in 1818 prohibited anyone from teaching slaves to read or write. The state legislature strengthened the law in 1830 with “An Act to Prevent all Persons from Teaching Slaves to Read or Write, the Use of Figures Excepted.”

Although the state Literary Fund had been created in 1825 to support public education in North Carolina,the first public schools did not open until 1840 after the passage of the common school law by the state legislature in 1839. Prior to that time, if children were educated at all, it was by paid tutors, or in community schools built by volunteers, or at private academies and boarding schools. The common school law established the principle of combined state and local funding for public schools. The state was divided into school districts with primary schools in each district. The local school district for Rowan County was based at the Setzer School, a one-room log school on Jacob Setzer’s plantation, just east of China Grove. By 1846 every county in the state had one or more public schools, and in 1847 the “Board of Superintendents of Common Schools of Rowan County” was established. The county was divided into school districts, teacherswere hired, and schools were established throughout the county—for white children only.

Schools throughout North Carolina continued to improve with the appointment of Calvin Wiley as the first superintendent of the state common schools in 1853. He urged the state legislature to expand the ungraded common school system to a comprehensive system of primary, grammar, and secondary schools.The State Educational Association (now the North Carolina Association of Educators) was organized in 1857, and by the end of the decade the state’s common school system was considered one of the best in the country.Nonetheless, black children remained without access to public education.

In 1865, at the conclusion of the American Civil War, “The Bureau of Refugees, Freemen, and Abandoned Lands,” known simply as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established by the federal government to aid former slaves in the South, including teaching them to read and write. It has been estimated that there were more than 300,000 former slaves living in North Carolina at the close of the war, including more than 100,000 children. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by Congress in 1866, granting full citizenship to blacks, and giving the Federal government responsibility to protect equal rights under the law to all American citizens.

In addition to the Freedmen’s Bureau, northern philanthropic groups and churches began to offer financial support for black education throughout the South, including the training of teachers. Financier George Peabody established the Peabody Education Fund in 1867—America’s first organized philanthropy—with a gift of $2.4 millionto "encourage the intellectual, moral, and industrial education of the destitute children of the Southern States."The fund supported the growth of public schools for blacks and whites across the South, including a grant in 1869 for the support of teachers for black students in North Carolina.

The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by congress in 1869, which prohibited any state from denying a citizen the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.North Carolina ratified the amendment on March 5, 1869. The new state constitution had been createdin 1868, and established a uniform public graded school system for the education of "all the children of the State between the ages of six and twenty-one years" funded by "taxation and otherwise."In 1875, more than 30 amendments were made to the state constitution, including one that created three separate school systems—for white, black, and American Indian (Native American) students.

Private colleges and universities for the education of blacks were established throughout the state, beginning withthe Raleigh Institute in 1865 (now Shaw University) established by the Baptist church. Others colleges followedin 1867 with the establishment of St. Augustine's College in Raleigh by the Episcopal Church, Barber Scotia College in Concord and the Biddle Institute (now Johnson C. Smith University) in Charlotte by the Presbyterian church, Bennett College in Greensboro in 1873 by the Methodist church, and Livingstone Collegein Salisbury in 1879 by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.

By 1877 the state began establishing “Colored State Normal Schools”for “the purpose of training teachers for the colored elementary public schools of North Carolina.” The normal schools were “free to those who intend to teach in the colored public schools of North Carolina” and the first to be established was in Fayetteville (now Fayetteville State University). Eventually eight normal schools for black students, including one in Salisbury, were established in North Carolina, as well as five normal schools for whitestudents. The federal censusof1880 hadindicated that 70 percent of the South’s adult black population was illiterate.Black educators formed the North Carolina Teachers Association in 1881to promote education as a way to improve racial progress, and membership in the association included prominent educators, such as Joseph C. Price founder of Livingstone College, as well as prominent politicians, lawyers, and doctors.In 1882, John Slater, a Connecticut textile manufacturer, established a foundation with a gift of $1 million to provide support to black colleges in the South, including North Carolina.

In 1883, thestate legislaturepassed the Dortch Act, which allowed city voters to divide tax revenues along racial lines, resulting in inequitable funding for black schools. Both blacks and whites paid taxes for the construction new of schools, although most of the tax dollars went to the construction of white schools. The Dortch Act was ultimately ruled unconstitutional in 1886 by the North Carolina Supreme Court; nonetheless, few schools for blacks were constructed entirely with public funds, instead the construction of black schools relied on donations of land, labor, and money from the black community.

The 1890 federal census indicated that only 4 percent of whites and less than half of 1 percent of blacks between the ages of fifteen and nineteen attended high school. Most high schools were private at that time and there were no public high schools for black children in eight Southern states, including North Carolina. The next federal census reported that one in five white adults in North Carolina were illiterate, and one-half of all black adults were illiterate. North Carolina joined other Southern states by passing a constitutional amendment in 1900requiring citizens to pass a literacy test before they could register to vote,effectively disenfranchising much of the state’s black population. The Charlotte Observer reported that it was a way for wealthy white Democrats to "rid themselves of the dangers of the rule of Negroes and the lower class of whites."

Electedgovernor in 1900on an education platform,Charles B. Aycockfelt that “no lasting social reform could be accomplished without education”and as governor he sought to improve the state's public school systems by increasing teachers’ salaries, extending the school terms, and constructing new school buildings.During his term in office, from 1901 to 1905,a total of 599 new schools were built for whites across the state, and91 new schools were established for blacks.Aycock continued to advocate for improvements in public educationafter he left office. Although historians generally consider Governor Aycock to be North Carolina’s first progressive governor—he had supported the suffrage movement and an expansion of schools for black students—he was also a proponent of racial segregation and supported a school curriculum that was controlled by whites to "benefit the black race to fit them into a subordinate role."

The Southern Education Board (SEB) was established in 1901 to promote education in the south, especially rural education.The following year, the General Education Board (GEB) was established to promoteeducation throughout the country“without distinction as to race, sex or creed.” The GEB receivedgifts from several philanthropists, including a special gift of $1,000,000 from John D. Rockefeller, for carrying out work in the southern United States.Rockefeller made additional gifts of $10,000,000 in 1905 and $32,000,000in 1907, eventually givinga total of $180 million, primarily for the support of higher education and medical schools, and for the improvement of farming practices in the South.The“Women's Association for the Betterment of Public Schoolhouses in North Carolina” was foundedin 1902 and began working with the SEB and the GEB, whichprovided money to help Southern states hire administrators to work with rural schools. North Carolina becomethe second Southern state to appropriate the required matching funds.About the same time a wealthyQuakerfrom Philadelphia, Anna T. Jeanes, sought to improve community and school conditions for rural blacks, and donated $1 million in 1907 for the creation of the Jeanes Foundation, whose funds were distributed by the GEBto hire experienced black teachers as supervisors of novice teachers in black schools, including North Carolina. The Jeanes supervisors, who were typically women, also went into the communities to instruct residents in modern health care, child rearing and home economics.

By 1910, the budget for schools in North Carolina had tripled, and almost 3,000 schools had been constructed across the state, including the first publicly-funded graded schools for black students. However, the schools built for blacks were typically smaller than those built for whites, and funding for facilities, teachers, and books lagged well behind the funding for white schools.During this period, Southern states began enacting so-called “Jim Crow laws” that enforced racial segregation, and North Carolina was no exception. Segregation extended to restaurants, travel, amusement and recreation facilities, libraries, hospitals, prisons, housing, and municipal services such as fire stations. Restaurants did not serve blacks in the dining room, movie theaters had separate balcony seating, and there were separate libraries and hospitals. It was under those circumstances that Julius Neely established his own school near China Grove.

Extensive growth had come to Salisbury and Rowan County with the opening of Southern Railway's steam locomotive repair center north of town. Salisbury High Schoolopened for white studentsin 1904 and was the second high school established in the state. Salisbury was also the third city in the state to create a publicly-funded graded school for white students, with a separate room for each grade.While new schools were opening for white children, the number of students at Salisbury Colored Graded School continued to grow, and by 1912 there were 329 students occupying the two-story frame building with only six classrooms. Grades eight and nine were added by 1917, followed by grades ten and eleven.The state legislature established a separate Board of Education for the City of Salisbury in 1921 and plans were made for a new high school for white students, as well as additions to three of the existing white graded schools. Funds were also approved for an African American high school and a three-story brick school, theJ. C. Price School, was built in 1923 across the street from Livingstone College, becoming Salisbury's only African American public school, replacing the much smaller and overcrowded Salisbury Colored Graded School. In 1926 the white Boyden High School, now Salisbury High School, replaced the original Salisbury High School.

School construction had increased statewide, with more than 5,000 new rural schools for white students and almost 1,300 new schools for black students. In 1913, the state appointed two "agents for rural schools," one for white schools and the other for black schools. The state Department of Education established the Division of Negro Education in 1921, with a full-time director and an inspector to supervise the building of secondary schools for black students. In Rowan County, however, there were only 36 schools by the 1920s, many of which were only one- or two-room buildings, and the school system was considered to be the worst in the state. The county school board adopted a school improvement plan in 1924 and 18 new schools were constructed, each with a minimum of eight rooms.

The first Rosenwald Schools in North Carolina were built in 1925; however, it was not until the end of the decade that the first Rosenwald Schools were built in Rowan County, with the construction of the four-teacher Cleveland School in 1929and the four-teacher Bear Poplar School in 1931. Other Rosenwald Schools built in the county included the two-teacher North Spencer School and the one-teacher Rockwell School.Salisbury School, a sixteen-teacher Rosenwald School, was constructed in 1931 and was later renamed J. C. Price High School. It served as Salisbury’s black high school from 1932 until1969 when the Salisbury schools were integrated. The original J. C. Price Schoolserved as an elementary school during that period, and was renamedMonroe Street School.

By the 1930s, there were 1,600 one-room schools in North Carolina, including 935 schools for black students and 665 schools for white students. Although the state constitution required that the segregated schools be “separate but equal,” the buildings, supplies, books, and the treatment of students and teachers, was seldom equal. School buildings for black children in North Carolina were worth one-ninth the value of school facilities for white children, few schools for black children offered standard high school programs, and schools for training black teachers were not equally available across the state. The state legislature voted in 1931 to control all of the public schools and North Carolina became the first state to have a comprehensive school system. Few county or city governments in the state had the money to support public education during the Depression and state control kept schools from closingwhile providing funding. It was not until after World War II that substantial masonry consolidated public schools for blacks were constructed across the state.The Neely School closed about that time, having fulfilled its mission, andthe students it served began attendingthe segregated public schools in Salisbury and Rowan County.

By 2010, having been abandoned for 60 years,the little Neely School was forlorn having suffered from the elements and vandalism, and a dense forest had grown up around it, however, despitethe deterioration, the building was mostly intact. Julius and Katie Neely’s farm was subdivided among their children and grandchildren, and by the 1950s and 1960s manyof them had built their own homes along Neelytown Road, as well as on Corriher Gravel Road and Ramseur Road. The old “Homeplace” where the Neelys had raised their family had unfortunately been destroyed by a fire several years before. The decision was made by the Historic Neely School Foundation members to stabilize the school building, and to relocate it to a more visible location—the vacant site of the “Homeplace”—and to restore the building to its previous condition, replacing the missing bell in the belfry and the old wood stove, furnishing the school with old desks, and opening it to the public.