As many North Carolina public school students wrap up their first week back in the classroom, we salute the state’s 175-year history of providing free education.
North Carolina’s first free school opened on January 20, 1840. It was near the present-day community of Williamsburg in Rockingham County. Although the school no longer stands and its exact location is unknown, a highway marker southeast of Reidsville marks the vicinity of the school.
The Williamsburg school opened a year after the North Carolina legislature passed the Common School Law, on January 8, 1839. County elections were held in the same year with taxes for schools on the ballot. Sixty-one of sixty-eight counties voted in favor of the taxes. Every county would have at least one publicly funded school by 1846.
Some North Carolinians questioned the viability of a system of public education. They asked where to find teachers? Was the $60.00 annual salary sufficient to draw farmers, merchants and mechanics into the profession? Was the three month term too short to be effective? How would children travel two, three and even four miles each way to attend? The letter writer Rusticus raised such questions in a letter to the editor in the August 7, 1839 issue of the North-Carolina Standard (excerpt below).
On March 17, 2015 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a resolution commemorating the opening of the Williamsburg school “reaffirming the General Assembly’s continued support and advocacy for strong, innovative, and high-achieving public schools during the observance of the one hundred seventy-fifth anniversary of the first public school in North Carolina.”