Stories in these streets

Teacher creates walking tour to celebrate black history
Feb. 15, 2014 @ 03:54 PM

WARRENTON – Warren County is rich with history. But Jennie A. Johnson Franklin became concerned her students weren’t aware of some of it.

Franklin, now retired, said when she was teaching eighth-graders, her students said. “There are no black businesses in Warrenton.”

With the help of her mother, also a teacher, Franklin put together a walking tour of downtown Warrenton, highlighting locations of black businesses and other structures.

“They were amazed at how many businesses there were,” Franklin said. “I didn’t do it to answer all their questions. I wanted the students to do more research.”

That school project blossomed into an African American Walking Tour, which she and Jereanne King Johnson led for the 2013 Spring Fest.

“She has been a person to pay attention to the history of Warren County, and especially the families and their stories,” Johnson said. “I think it comes from her mother, who was a walking history book.”

Warrenton Town Commissioner Woody King, who heads up the town’s Revitalization Committee, said the African American Walking Tour was a valuable addition to the 2013 Spring Fest.

“When you can partner like that, it works well,” he said. “It gives people another reason to come to Warrenton.”

A brochure Franklin developed for the walking tour gives thumbnail sketches of 23 buildings that played prominent roles in black history. In conversation, she is able to give details of many of those sites.

She pointed out that Oak Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on East Macon Street was built by former slaves in 1868.

“There’s a lot of history in that wooden structure,” she said.

It stands on land donated by John A. Hyman, the first black to represent North Carolina in the United States Congress, she added.

Another building had a more down-to-earth beginning.

“When black citizens came to Warrenton, there was no place to go to the bathroom,” Franklin said.

Out of that need grew the Community Center at 109 W. Franklin St. It was built in 1931 “with wood from Warren County, cut by African Americans.” It includes an assembly room, lavatories for men and women, a meeting room, offices and a library for children.

It was built and is maintained by black citizens, “not by the city or Warren County,” she said.

The buildings on the African American Walking Tour represent a “we can do it” attitude, Franklin said.

“Citizens took it upon themselves to make things happen,” she said.

In some locations, the buildings no longer stand. On the corner of South Main and West Franklin streets is a garden and kiosk on the site of a store owned by J. Stewart Wortham and his wife, Mary G. Wortham.

Another building, at 210 Plummer St., alternately served as a residence and business establishment, including the Shiloh Institute. It is now the home of Warren County Clerk of Court Richard Hunter. He is familiar with Franklin’s efforts to document black history in Warren County.

“Her mother was a great compiler of history, especially of Oak Chapel Church,” he said.

Franklin was born in Jubilee Hospital in Henderson and grew up in Warrenton. “

I’m that person who never wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “But both my parents were teachers.”

Her father, Matthew A. Johnson, served as principal of several schools in Warren County. It was there that he met and married Franklin’s mother, Ada S. Johnson, a teacher.

Franklin attended Talladega College in Alabama before transferring to Bennett College back in North Carolina, where she received a bachelor’s degree. She later received a master’s degree from North Carolina State University. She also studied at the University of Virginia and Trinity College in the District of Columbia.

“My intention was to go into music therapy,” Franklin said.

But she became a classroom teacher and practiced her profession in the District of Columbia, Prince William County, Virginia, Fort Bragg and Warren County. She also served as assistant superintendent and acting superintendent in Weldon and as an education specialist with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Franklin’s interest in music has not been neglected.

“I’ve used my musical training in the classroom,” she said.

She still plays the piano for events and serves as an organist.

She also has pursued other community concerns. She is a member of Rho Tau Omega, the Warren County chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She was one of the founders of the local chapter and has served twice as president.

“We try to meet some of the health, education and economic needs of people,” she said. “We have a scholarship which now is $5,000 a year. We’ve awarded more than $100,000 in scholarships over the years.”

Franklin is active with the Warren Education Fund, a local foundation that raises money to support projects in Warren County’s public schools. One of the organization’s fund raisers is a spelling bee.

“She works very diligently on our spelling bee,” fund President Portia Hawes said. “In fact, she’s our word finder, to find the words we use in the spelling bee.”

Working with Franklin is very easy and informative, Hawes said.

“She has worked on the new teacher tour,” she said. “She’s one of our guides for that because she knows Warren County history. You know if you give her something to do, it will be done.”

Franklin served on the Warren County Elections Board for eight years.

“I’ve always been interested in historical events and governance,” she said. “I was active in the Democratic Party, served as a precinct captain. We not only want to register people to vote; we want them to know why they should vote.”

She has supported efforts to renovate some of the abandoned Rosenwald schools in Warren County. Between 1918 and 1929, 25 schools were built in the county with support of the Rosenwald Fund. Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears and Roebuck, teamed with Booker T. Washington to encourage the construction of schools to serve African Americans at a time when many were without educational opportunities.

Franklin was married to Henry Franklin, who is deceased. She has two children. Ann E. Franklin attended St. Andrews College and holds a degree in biology. She worked as a food safety specialist with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and is currently a part-time graduate student at Northeastern University in Boston.

Her son, George A. Franklin, attended Fayetteville State University, served three years in the military and now works for the Department of the Army.

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.