By Paula R. Stiles
[Check out more details about the above photo of Pee Dee Rosenwald School, c.1935, here.]
Though born in Virginia, plain, unassuming workhorse Annie Wealthy Holland (1871-1934) was one of the most influential African American educators, woman or man, in the early 20th century in North Carolina. Though greatly dedicated to the cause of African American education, she never earned a diploma. And though she wielded considerable power across the state as the demonstration agent for the Jeanes Fund and founder of the Negro Parent-Teacher Association (the first of its kind), equivalent to being a supervisor over all African American schools in North Carolina, she never had a formal administrative position. Annie Wealthy Holland’s career, first profiled a mere five years after her death in Five North Carolina Negro Educators, reflected the contradictions for women and for African Americans in Reconstruction and Segregation era North Carolina.
Holland was born in 1871 in Isle of Wight County in Virginia. Her parents, John Daughtry and Margaret Hill, had married in 1869, but divorced soon after she was born. This resulted in an early setback for Holland in her road to education. Even though her grandfather and grandmother had strong ties to the nearby plantation, her mother moved her young daughter to Southhampton County after remarrying. There, Annie spent her early years with few prospects, raising her six younger siblings while struggling to study.
Holland’s paternal family regarded the white owners of the nearby plantation so highly that they had named her after the mistress, Annie Wealthy. The Wealthys had also freed her grandfather, Friday Daughtry, in 1867 and given him some property of land and livestock to get started. He was able to increase this to the point where he invited his eldest granddaughter to return and pursue her studies while living with him. There, Holland learned about the ways and hardships of farming peanuts and sweet potatoes, a lifelong lesson. She also noticed that educational opportunities were increasing for African Americans, who were beginning to replace the previous white teachers in the field, and quickly took it to heart as her vocation.
After Holland graduated from the Isle of Wight County School at age 16, her grandfather sent her to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia. Founded in 1861 to educate African American refugees from the War as future leaders of their communities, the Institute focused on teaching practical skills like trades. Unfortunately, Holland’s education was interrupted when her grandfather died after her first year. After moving to New York and working as a nurse and nanny for a family there, she was able to earn enough money to enroll for a second year, but illness due to malaria prevented her from completing her diploma (a lifelong regret she expressed decades later in surviving letters). She was, however, later able to earn a teaching certificate from Virginia Normal Industrial Institute.
At the age of 18, around the time of her grandfather’s death, she married a Hampton graduate named Willis Holland. They moved to Franklin, Virginia where, eight years later, they were serving as principal and assistant principal of a nearby school. Holland quickly learned (perhaps aided by her own early experiences of balancing study with child care) that the ability of their students to study and even attend school could be greatly and adversely affected by lack of basic resources. For example, she took it upon herself to conduct clothing drives for students who were too poor to have adequate winter clothing. African American public schools at this time suffered from a lack of educational resources, such as textbooks, in comparison to white schools. This made keeping the school open a constant challenge. Aside from a brief stint working on her own with a rural school, Holland continued to run the Franklin area school with her husband until 1911.
In October of that year, Holland made the decision to join the Jeanes Fund. The million-dollar Anna T. Jeanes Fund had been created by, and named after, Quaker philanthropist Anna Jeanes in 1907 to help expand public education for African Americans. It was unique among such foundations for allowing African Americans on the board of trustees.
The job was a formidable undertaking. As of 1914, the Fund did not even have one teacher for every one of their 119-county coverage in Virginia and North Carolina. The position involved a great deal of extension work, not only teaching of students but also community outreach and interaction. Nevertheless, Holland was so good at this that in 1915, she was asked to become the State Home Demonstration Agent in North Carolina. This gave her de facto authority over all African American elementary schools in the state. She held the position for 13 years.
In her new role, Holland had a comprehensive variety of roles and duties. She had to train and organize teachers, create reading circles and homemakers’ clubs, run meetings, and give church speeches. Her purview included 19 county schools, 10 city schools, and 3 “normal” (teaching college) schools. She might visit as many as twenty counties in a given month and oversaw forty-five county supervisors. She was the epitome of leading through service.
At the end of this period, Holland founded the first Negro Parent-Teacher State Association, called the North Carolina Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, at Shaw University (an African American college founded as Raleigh Institute in 1865) in 1928. Shaw was a prestigious college, the first in the U.S. to have a four-year medical degree and the first African American college to accept women. This meeting of some fifteen thousand people and seven hundred and seventy organizations was the culmination of a long and hard, but fruitful career.
Holland died six years later in Louisburg, NC and was buried in Franklin. While her life and career had begun in Virginia, in the end, her heart belonged to North Carolina. In commemoration, a tree was planted in her honor at Shaw University in 1939, five years after her death at the age of 63.
Much of Holland’s success stemmed from her remarkable knack for diplomacy and her self-effacing approach. She was an excellent mediator, gifted at persuading teachers and parents, blacks and whites, to get along and work together. She believed that African Americans should stand up for themselves, albeit not in ways that would deliberately alienate whites.
She also had to deal with the reality that she was working in a period where women had to take a secondary role to men, regardless of their race. There was never a question, for example, when she ran a school with her husband, whether he would be the principal and she would be his assistant. The few women who were able to have a career outside of the home also had to work very hard to maintain their position — and as Holland herself discovered, that work often involved teaching other women how to be better homemakers.
Her low-key approach also allowed her to navigate potentially dangerous political shoals and expand education – especially rural, public education — in the state for African Americans considerably during the early Segregation period. Unlike some other African American leaders of the time, Holland lacked the option in her later career of working exclusively in that community. She had to deal with a white community that perceived itself as superior to her and did not necessarily approve of giving up resources for African American education, and she had to do so with both firmness and tact. Teaching impoverished children might have been the easiest part of her job. Possibly, her early experience with sympathetic whites such as her namesake was what led to her even-handed skill in dealing with both communities and establishing unusual legal ties across the great divide of Segregation.
Annie Wealthy Holland was not a glamorous woman by any stretch. Nor was she an obvious candidate for a forceful or transformational leader. But the drip of water over many years can erode stone better than a tsunami. Holland is an excellent example of one of many such leaders during the Segregation period who transformed North Carolina in numerous, pervasive and positive ways.
“The Educators,” The Women Who Ran the Schools: The Jeanes Teachers and Durham County’s Rural Black Schools.
Carter, Nathan. Five North Carolina Negro Educators. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1939.
Crow, Jeffrey J.; Escott, Paul D.; and Hatley, Flora J. A History of African Americans in North Carolina. 2nd ed. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2011.
Gillespie, Michele and McMillen, Sally G., eds. North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Vol. 1. The Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.
Hoffschwelle, Mary. The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.
Kent, Scotti and Cohn, Scotti. More Than Petticoats: Remarkable North Carolina Women. Helena: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 2000.
Williams, Shane. “Annie Wealthy Holland (1871-1934),” North Carolina History Project, 2016.