ROSEBORO — The sounds of James Franklin Howard’s saxophone bounced off the walls inside the gymnasium of the old Charles E. Perry School, lined with pictures of the influential black men and women who breathed life into Roseboro and Sampson County in bygone days. Some were even in the room listening on as Howard played a special selection just for them.
The Gwyn Fisher Turman Scholarship Fund’s inaugural Legacy Dinner received an overwhelming response as 35 nonagenarians (ages 90-99) and centenarians (ages 100+) who grew up in Roseboro and surrounding communities were honored for their legacies as part of the Rosenwald Era (see related story inside).
“Tonight is a very special night,” said scholarship fund president Rubestene Fisher Potter, who presided over Saturday’s event at the old Charles E. Perry High School on Boone Street.
She explained the significance of Charles E. Perry as a Rosenwald School and implored others to read more about the history behind it. In the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington convinced Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, to use his millions of dollars to build schools in the rural South for black children. Robert Robinson, the first black man to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) designed the first Rosenwald schools.
There were about 5,300 built in 15 states, with more than 800 established in North Carolina alone, more than any other state. Sampson County had five of those: Garland, White Oak and Sampson Training, as well as Snow Hill School and Roseboro Colored School, which would become Charles E. Perry. Roseboro Colored School became a high school in 1935. It was named after Rev. Charles Ernest Perry in 1958.
“Some of us had never heard of a Rosenwald School and we were attending a Rosenwald School,” Potter said. “Tonight we are celebrating nonagenarians and centenarians and paying tribute to them.”
As part of the dinner event, Potter introduced several of the 35 honorees. Mary Smith Martin, Lila Spearman West, Dr. Lattice Boykin McKoy, Fannie Parker Johnson, Mary Jenkie Spearman Brown and Sannie Crumpler Purdie were among those in attendance. Purdie was the oldest in attendance at 101 years of age. Potter noted that great genes run in her family, as her father Claude Crumpler lived a long life, passing away in 1988 at the age of 115.
Along with Parker, Roseboro Mayor Alice Butler, Sampson County Board of Education member Sonya Powell, County Commissioner Albert Kirby and others, including Dr. Bertha Boykin Todd offered greetings leading up to the dinner. Todd spoke to the legacy of Boykin, the first principal during the Rosenwald years.
The Gwyn Fisher Turman Scholarship Fund was established in 2009 in honor of Turman, a 1968 graduate of Livingston College and a distinguished retired New York City educator.
“She was dedicated to the educational excellence of children who show promise of soaring to new heights,” said Millus Turman, chief executive officer of the scholarship fund’s Board of Directors. “Our mission is to bring resources to the children of Sampson County, which will help them become contributing and forthright members of society.”
Turman, Robert Lee Potter and Potter greeted attendees and introduced 2016 legacy honorees. A statement from the three thanked those in attendance for making the inaugural event a success.
“Your presence tells us that you care about Roseboro, its youth and the educational opportunities for youth throughout Sampson County,” the statement read. “We are pleased to honor those on whose shoulders we stand. Their vision, leadership, dedication, generosity and courage propelled us to initiate this inaugural Legacy Dinner.”
Todd thanked Potter, the scholarship fund’s Board of Directors and those in attendance for supporting the fund, which helps local students with higher education expenses. Several recipients were on hand Saturday escorting honorees and helping to serve dinner.
“Education was the key to a better life,” Todd said, alluding to the Rosenwald era. That still stands true, as the scholarship fund shows. “You are truly impacting humanity and I commend you for that.”
“You are the ones whose shoulders we stand on in Sampson County,” said Kirby, whose mother went to a Rosenwald school. “You struggled but you drove on. Thank you and God bless each and every one of you. Thank you for everything you’ve done for guys like myself.”
Others shared in that praise for the honorees, some noting that longevity was a blessing from the Lord and those who were blessed had done a great many things with their years. Whether the families they raised or the impacts they made in business, schools and their communities, their impact was indelible, they said.
The scholarship fund’s leadership group promised more to come in the future, saying there were many who were still deserving of praise. Specifically, they will honor octogenarians (ages 80-89) at next year’s event.
“We pray that the Gwyn Fisher Turman Scholarship Fund Legacy Dinner will be known as the instrument for acknowledging ordinary individuals who have lived extraordinary lives,” the group stated. “Their legacies will long be cherished and remembered in Sampson County. We pray this grand and momentous legacy celebration will launch us into even greater community service.”
Rev. Harry Hines spoke as some of the scholarship recipients looked on. The fund, started seven years ago, has helped many students as they embark on their college experiences. With the help of others, it is the hope of the Gwyn Fisher Turman group those awards will continue for years to come.
“It’s doing its job,” Hines noted.
Rubestene Potter was given a standing ovation for her role in spearheading the inaugural event, which included compiling a comprehensive program with information about all the honorees and message of praise from their families and loved ones.
Robert Potter, chief finance officer for the scholarship fund, thanked everyone for their support, while again lauding the honorees of the event and those who came from out of town to offer support.
“It’s because of your endurance we are here,” he remarked. “You have come from everywhere to celebrate age and we love you for it.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.