Many readers are familiar with the development of the Rosenwald School in the African American community. Fewer may know about the pioneering educators who worked tirelessly to create and staff this institution of learning. Once such person is Wilkie Johnstone.
Wilkie D. Carpenter Johnstone was born in Mill Spring, Polk County, NC on September 18, 1878 (some sources say 1882) to Wilkes and Maria Edwards Carpenter. Once she reached young adulthood, she attended and graduated in 1902 from Lincoln Academy, a black girls’ boarding school in Gaston County, NC that was run by a white woman from the North, Emily Prudden. Prior to moving to Brevard to teach at Mt. Hermon Academy, Wilkie taught in schools run by Prudden in other parts of North Carolina: Lovejoy Institute, located in Wilkie’s hometown of Mill Springs, NC, and Douglass Academy in Cleveland County, NC.
Prudden had begun a string of black boarding schools in the foothills of western North Carolina and was part of the driving force behind creating a “Colored Industrial School” in Brevard in the early 1900s named “Mt. Hermon Academy,” after the highest peak in Israel. Trustees of the proposed school were in possession of the property where it was intended to be built and transferred ownership of the property to Prudden, who then transferred it to Wilkie Johnstone and her husband Dr. James Hill Johnstone in 1909. Dr. Johnstone was a practicing physician, and records indicate that his role was not only as an administrator for the construction of the school, but also to act as its on-call physician.
Dr. James Hill Johnstone had studied medicine at Knoxville College Medical School. Knoxville College was a small all-black Presbyterian college and had the reputation for Christian values. Very few colleges at this time allowed African Americans to attend, and even fewer had medical programs. Dr. Johnstone was involved in the Young Men’s Institute (YMI) in Asheville, which was the equivalent of the YMCA but for African Americans. A news article in the Asheville Citizen-Times from July 20, 1897 lists his among the names of attendees in the “colored” section of the teacher training program. Perhaps this is how he became familiar with this area, because the couple married in Buncombe County in 1907, but must have gone back to Knoxville where their first child, Coragreene, was born in 1908.
In 1909, the Johnstone family moved to Brevard to help with opening Mt. Hermon Academy. The school had previously been backed by local businessman Jim Aiken, but after his untimely death in a fire engine accident in August of 1909, others including Dr. Johnstone took the helm to keep the project on track. By October of the same year, the Transylvania Times was reporting that Johnstone had moved to the area with the specific intent of opening the school and was staying in the home formerly occupied by Jim Aiken.
This article will continue with Part 2 next week. Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Local History Librarian Laura Sperry. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820.