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W.E.B. Du Bois' first classroom

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Wilson County Civic League relocated Wheeler School to Fiddlers Grove in 1994

For close to a century the rickety shack tussled in a no-holds-barred wrestling match with the elements. Perched near a spring, this unheralded historic gem might have tumbled over had a mighty gust of wind slapped it head-on.

Hidden in plain sight, the 110-year-old Wheeler Schoolhouse was rescued in 1994 and today stands neat and proud inside the historic village known as Fiddlers Grove.

Too few citizens of Wilson County are aware of the rich legacy of this building or know its story, which begins at its roots on Hearn Hill Road, about a mile and a half west of Highway 70 just before it winds into the DeKalb County town of Alexandria.

This small, one-room school went up in 1897, replacing the former Wheeler School, a log house built in the 1860s, where W.E.B. Du Bois, an iconic African American, taught school before going on to become the first black man to be awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard University and co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Du Bois, who grew up in Great Barrington, Mass., where blacks and whites lived in harmony and attended the same schools and churches, became enlightened to the ways of the South after he enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville and particularly so in the summer of 1886. At 18 years of age he attended a teachers' institute in Lebanon, earned his certification and then hit the dusty roads looking for place to teach.

He found his first job that July as he taught the children of former slaves inside a deserted little schoolhouse, formerly a corn crib, a few miles beyond Watertown near the rural community of Alexandria. His salary was $28 a month.

Du Bois described first schoolroom

In his book, "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903), the sociologist, civil rights activist and historian wrote about his first pupils and their tiny Tennessee schoolroom: There they sat, nearly thirty of them, on the rough benches, their faces shading from a pale cream to a deep brown, the little feet bare and swinging, the eyes full of expectation, with here and there a twinkle of mischief, and the hands grasping Webster's blue-black spelling-book. I loved my school, and the fine faith the children had in the wisdom of their teacher was truly marvelous. We read and spelled together, wrote a little, picked flowers, sang, and listened to stories of the world beyond the hill.

Du Bois describes Wheeler School

Below are several selected paragraphs from Chapter Four of "The Souls of Black Folk," published in 1903, as W.E.B. Du Bois reflects on his teaching stint for two summers in the 1880s at Wheeler School in Wilson County and then returning to the site 10 years later.

"The schoolhouse was a log hut, where Colonel Wheeler used to shelter his corn. It sat in a lot behind a rail fence and thorn bushes, near the sweetest of springs. There was an entrance where a door once was, and within, a massive rickety fireplace; great chinks between the logs served as windows. Furniture was scarce. A pale blackboard crouched in the corner. My desk was made of three boards, reinforced at critical points, and my chair, borrowed from the landlady, had to be returned every night. Seats for the children -- these puzzled me much. I was haunted by a New England vision of neat little desks and chairs, but, alas! the reality was rough plank benches without backs, and at times without legs. They had the one virtue of making naps dangerous, --possibly fatal, for the floor was not to be trusted.

It was a hot morning late in July when the school opened. I trembled when I heard the patter of little feet down the dusty road, and saw the growing row of dark solemn faces and bright eager eyes facing me.

There they sat, nearly thirty of them, on the rough benches, their faces shading from a pale cream to a deep brown, the little feet bare and swinging, the eyes full of expectation, with here and there a twinkle of mischief, and the hands grasping Webster's blue-black spelling-book. I loved my school, and the fine faith the children had in the wisdom of their teacher was truly marvelous. We read and spelled together, wrote a little, picked flowers, sang, and listened to stories of the world beyond the hill.

For two summers I lived in this little world; it was dull and humdrum. The girls looked at the hill in wistful longing, and the boys fretted and haunted Alexandria. Alexandria was "town," -- a straggling, lazy village of houses, churches, and shops, and an aristocracy of Toms, Dicks, and Captains. Cuddled on the hill to the north was the village of the colored folks, who lived in three-or four-room unpainted cottages, some neat and homelike, and some dirty. The dwellings were scattered rather aimlessly, but they centered about the twin temples of the hamlet, the Methodist, and the Hard-Shell Baptist churches. These, in turn, leaned gingerly on a sad-colored schoolhouse.

The ten years that follow youth, the years when first the realization comes that life is leading somewhere, -- these were the years that passed after I left my little school. When they were past, I came by chance once more to the walls of Fisk University, to the halls of the chapel of melody. As I lingered there in the joy and pain of meeting old school-friends, there swept over me a sudden longing to pass again beyond the blue hill, and to see the homes and the school of other days, and to learn how life had gone with my school-children; and I went. . . .

My log schoolhouse was gone. In its place stood Progress; and Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly. The crazy foundation stones still marked the former site of my poor little cabin, and not far away, on six weary boulders, perched a jaunty board house, perhaps twenty by thirty feet, with three windows and a door that locked. Some of the window glass was broken, and part of an old iron stove lay mournfully under the house. I peeped through the window half reverently, and found things that were more familiar. The blackboard had grown by about two feet, and the seats were still without backs. The county owns the lot now, I hear, and every year there is a session of school. As I sat by the spring and looked on the Old and the New I felt glad, very glad, and yet--

Lebanon's Harry Watkins, Wilson County Civic League vice president, recalls, "It was when I read 'The Souls of Black Folk,' in about 1990, I found out Du Bois taught near Lebanon in Wilson County. I couldn't believe it. What really got me more intrigued was when some students at Tennessee Tech were doing some research and became involved in helping locate and identify the building."

A partnership between the Black Student Organization at Tech and the Savage-Goodner Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) out of Smithville saw to it that a state historical marker dedicated to Du Bois and Wheeler School went up on Highway 70 in 1993.

A year later, after visiting the school at its original site, Watkins called together the members of the Civic League board, and they agreed it was a good idea to try to save the building.

"It's a jewel for Wilson County, but it's about educating people," affirmed Watkins. "W.E.B. Du Bois needs to get his due. He was a brilliant man. He was outspoken. I think it opened his eyes when he came to Fisk in the South."

Professor related effects on Du Bois

Tennessee Tech history professor Wali Kharif, who served as faculty sponsor of the school's Black Students Organization at the time, spoke at the dedication ceremony of the marker, held on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 18, 1993, and noted in his speech that it was while Du Bois was a student at Fisk "in Tennessee that he would later write, that 'I saw the race problem at nearly its lowest terms.' But it was also in Tennessee that Du Bois found 'glimpses' of hope that a better day may be ahead.

"He would never be the same after this. Those young students and their parents, and the environment in which they lived, had a lasting impression on Du Bois. . . . The truth is that the eyes of one of the world's most renowned social scientist-philosopher-historians were first opened in a small black community, located outside of Alexandria," Kharif shared.

Watkins said, that after visiting the site of the school on the border of Wilson and DeKalb counties, "We found the owner of the property and asked if we could move it, and he said yes. He was using it as a barn to store his tobacco and stuff. We reassembled it using the actual material."

Wheeler School sat on the farm of Keith Harrison and was donated to the Civic League by his father and grandfather, Esker and Therman Harrison. It was dismantled, relocated and reconstructed in July 1994.

Schoolhouse gets a makeover

The present 28x20-foot structure is smaller than what Lebanon carpenters Joe Draper and Benny McCauthern Jr. began with due to the poor condition of some of the wood; however, it is original except for the tin roof. It took the men two to three weeks to complete their task.

Draper admitted that he had never heard of Wheeler School before he was asked to help.

"It was a pretty difficult job because we wanted to keep as much of the original wood in it as we could. I think we got it pretty good considering the condition it was in," said Draper, who over the years has taken his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see the building at Fiddlers Grove so they will appreciate its history.

Searching for Wheeler

Mac Willoughby lives within eyesight of the Wheeler School historical marker near Alexandria. He taught English at DeKalb County High School for about 30 years, while his associate Drew Fedak taught history.

"I had read about Wheeler School in the English book that I was teaching from in school," said Willoughby. "I wondered where in the world was that school?"

He and Fedak traveled a few miles up Highway 70 to visit Watertown historian Lowell Bogle.

"Bogle [who was born in 1897] told us that when he was a boy out on Hearn Hill Road, he would pass by a school over there with a whole lot of black children playing outside. We went there and saw an old building. I thought, 'Could this be a schoolhouse?' We went up and asked a man named Rutland, 'Do you know if that building was a school?' He said, 'You mean Wheeler School?'

"We went inside and there was a blackboard. Mr. Bogle set us on the right trail," said Willoughby of his 1993 adventure that set the historical reclamation in motion.

Alexandria native Mike Corley, who, with Willoughby, is a member of the SCV, assisted in raising $600 for the historical marker, while Tech's Black Student Organization raised the other half.

About the schoolhouse, Corley said, "If we hadn't found it when we did, it might have fallen down. After we heard that a black student group at Tennessee Tech was looking for it, I told them to look no further. We know where it was. So we met at the site with Tech history professor Wali Khalif.

"From that the Wilson County Civic League got with Mr. Harrison, who donated the schoolhouse so they could move it. They didn't want to let it rot to the ground, and it was at a site where nobody would ever see it. So the thing to do was move it."

Black students, SCV members team up

As for seeing to it that a historical marker was erected, Kharif noted the two groups had different motives.

"Colonel Wheeler, for whom the school was named, was a former Confederate. So the SCV wanted his generosity to be recognized. W. E. B. Du Bois became one of the most significant figures and spokesmen for 20th-century blacks, so the BSO wanted the site in Tennessee where he taught to be recognized," said Kharif.

Reflecting back to that Martin Luther King Day in 1993 when the marker was dedicated, he said, "The atmosphere was quite moving."

Among the comments he shared at the event, Kharif said it represented more than that holiday. He told those gathered, "Today represents a day of celebration, recognition and commemoration of all those unknown individuals who saw a need for change, and took some positive action to bring about change.

"Many of these brave pioneers for change were the products of contrasting environments, and may have been miles apart in their viewpoints and ideologies. Yet some transcended their specific differences and concentrated instead upon those areas where there was agreement, that there was a need for cooperation. It is within this context that the lives of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and Captain J.D. Wheeler crossed although the two men never met.

"This marker, which we are dedicating here today, is recognition of this distinction and more. For it also represents the contributory efforts of a former Confederate officer, Captain J.D. Wheeler, of the 5th Tennessee Cavalry, Confederate States of America, who provided land for a school that would provide a new generation of African Americans with an opportunity to secure an education.

". . . The historic marker we are dedicating here today will consecrate this location and will forever serve as a reminder of the spirit of 'cooperation' and 'change,''' concluded Kharif.

A brief biography of W.E.B. Du Bois

Sociologist, civil rights activist, historian and writer William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois was born Feb. 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Mass.

His hometown held a population of 5,000 with some 25 to 50 of them being black. The races lived in peaceful coexistence, attending the same churches and schools. As Great Barrington High School's sole black student, he graduated as valedictorian of his class at 16.

After working for a year in construction, Du Bois attended Fisk University in Nashville on a scholarship. For two months in the summers of 1886 and 1887, he was employed by the Wilson County School District to teach at Wheeler School near Alexandria in DeKalb County.

He went on to study at Harvard University, where in 1895, he became the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from the school.

After teaching ancient languages for a year at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio, he took a job at Penn as an assistant instructor. While in Philadelphia, he spent 15 months interviewing more than 5,000 black residents door to door in the city's Seventh Ward, the results of which would be revealed in his landmark book, "The Philadelphia Negro," published in 1899.

From Penn, Du Bois became a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University (today's Clark Atlanta University) in 1898. From 1898 to 1914, he directed The Annual Conference for the Study of Negro Problems as he collaborated with students and faculty from Fisk, Tuskegee, Hampton Institute, Atlanta University, and other colleges, historically black colleges and universities.

In 1909, he co-founded the NAACP and from 1910-1934 was editor of its Crisis newspaper.

A prolific writer, he penned a multitude of essays, more than three dozen books and three autobiographies.

One of the fathers of modern pan-Africanism, an intellectual movement to strengthen the bonds of all black people, Du Bois died Aug. 27, 1963, in Accra, Ghana, at the age of 95.

Material on Du Bois for this biography was gleaned from "The Times and Life of W.E.B. Du Bois at Penn," by Greg Johnson.

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