From the Editor: April 2020

Amber Keister relaxes at the Embassy Suites in Cary before the 2020 Maggy Party.

Until I met Larry Harris, I had never heard of the Rosenwald schools. But I soon realized this true story had all the epic elements — uncaring government officials, a compassionate hero and underdogs worth rooting for.

Segregated schools in the first quarter of the 20th century were chronically underfunded and in deplorable condition. Wealthy philanthropist Julius Rosenwald stepped in, and his namesake fund helped build roughly 5,300 African American schools throughout the South from 1913 to 1932.

These grants had strings, however. White-controlled school boards had to provide money for the schools, and black communities had to match the Rosenwald donation.

For the Apex School, $1,500 was raised from 1931 to 1932 – the equivalent today of $23,000 – at the height of the Great Depression. Pennies, nickels and dimes were collected at churches, rallies, ice cream socials and fish fries.

Folks in Apex also benefited from another source of income — moonshine.

Beginning in 1908, when North Carolina banned alcohol, bootleggers would run liquor from Virginia — a “wet” state — or manufacture whiskey in illicit stills. One of the Tar Heel State’s most successful bootleggers was an African American named Joe Baldwin, who happened to live in Apex.

“In an era in which African Americans were hamstrung by social, economic and legal injustices, the so-called ‘Baldwin Gang’ managed to become Apex’s most prosperous family business,” wrote Warren and Toby Holleman in their history of Apex, “Pluck, Perseverance, and Paint.”

The Baldwin family contributed generously to their community, including to the Apex Rosenwald School.

Is this a tawdry detail, unimportant to the uplifting main plot? I don’t think so. Too often students of history get only the sanitized versions of the past, which are both uninteresting and incomplete. When we talk about history, we should include the human foibles that help us understand our distant forebearers.

We can handle the truth — especially if it makes a good story.

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