Atkins, Simon Green
Simon Green Atkins
Educator, college president
Simon Green Atkins distinguished himself in his home state of North Carolina as a teacher and advocate of teacher-training programs for African Americans. Doubtless his success was known beyond the state's boundaries, for he founded a small school that he developed into Winston-Salem Teachers College, a four-year institution, and oversaw its transition from private to state control. His abiding interest in teacher-training also led him to become a founder of the North Carolina Negro Teachers Association—an organization that served his race well, especially during racial imparity.
The oldest child of farmers and former slaves Allen and Eliza Atkins, Simon Green Atkins was born on June 11, 1863, in the village of Haywood, in Chatham County, North Carolina, between Sanford and Raleigh. His town flourished during the period just after the Revolutionary War, but by the late 1800s the railroad and the neighboring town of Moncure had overshadowed it. At one time the area was considered as a location for the state capital as well as the state university. As a child, Atkins worked on a farm with his parents.
Atkins studied in the town school under pioneer black educators who came from St. Augustine's Normal and Collegiate Institute (later St. Augustine's College in Raleigh). One of these was Anna Julia Cooper, later prominent for her work as an activist, scholar, feminist, and school administrator in Washington, D.C. This cadre of educators went out into remote communities to teach rural blacks. Atkins also taught at the town school for a while before his college years, and in 1880 he enrolled in St. Augustine's. He spent summers teaching in the rural schools of Chatham and Moore counties. After he graduated with distinction in 1884, renowned educator and orator Joseph Charles Price, president of Livingstone College, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church-supported institution in Salisbury, North Carolina, invited Atkins to join his faculty. Atkins agreed and became grammar school department head. He spent six years at Livingstone (1884–90) and spent the last two years of his tenure there in the dual role as educator and treasurer of the college. During summer months he conducted institutes for black teachers in various counties.
- Born in Haywood, in Chatham County, North Carolina, on June 11
- Co-founds the North Carolina Negro Teachers Association
- Receives B.A. from St. Augustine's Normal and Collegiate Institute
- Heads the Grammar School Department at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina
- Serves dual role as business manager and head of Livingstone's grammar school
- Marries Oleona Pegram
- Edits the journal The Southland; becomes principal of Depot Street School
- Helps to settle Columbian Heights
- Moves to Columbian Heights; establishes Slater Industrial Academy
- Serves as full-time secretary of education for the African American Episcopal Zion Church; remains nominal head of Slater
- Returns to presidency of Slater (later Winston-Salem Teachers College)
- Resigns the presidency of Winston-Salem Teachers College and is named president emeritus; dies on June 28
The town educators of Winston (before its merger in 1913 with Salem to become Winston-Salem) lured Atkins to the post as principal of the Depot Street School, where he remained from 1890 to 1895. This was the state's largest public school for African Americans. His work with the North Carolina Negro Teachers' Association (NCNTA), which he helped to organize about 1881, had stimulated his interest in teacher-training schools for blacks. He directed this group as it established the foundation for a standard black teachers' college in the state. Soon after he began his duties at Depot Street, he intensified his efforts to build such a school for African Americans and sought assistance from the Winston Board of Trade, Chamber of Commerce, and local white residents. By then, the state had begun plans to fund an agricultural college for its African American residents; hearing this, Atkins sought funds to locate the new college in Winston. Local support for this move was good, as the black community donated $2,000, R. J. Reynolds of tobacco fame contributed $500, and Atkins obtained fifty acres of land along with the backing of the Chamber of Commerce. Although Atkins lobbied the state legislature in Raleigh on behalf of this plan, Winston and its residents lost out to nearby Greensboro, where citizens offered fourteen acres of land and $11,000.
Sets Foundation for Teacher College and Hospital
The town of Winston had become an industrial center. The black population lived in crowded conditions in rented facilities—conditions that Atkins found unhealthy. He also became an advocate of black home-ownership in the section of town known as Columbian Heights, which he helped to settle. After moving there in 1892, Atkins continued to work at Depot Street School. On September 28, 1892, Slater Industrial Academy was incorporated as a private entity with a board of trustees. To support the school he received funds from local businessmen as well as the Slater Fund established by New England textile mogul and philanthropist John F. Slater. Although Atkins became founding principal and president in 1892, classes at Slater school began in September 1893 with one teacher and twenty-five students who were housed in the one-room schoolhouse. Atkins resigned his post at Depot School in 1895 and concentrated on developing Slater. The school caught the state's attention, and in that year the state established a normal school for training teachers that was connected to Slater. The new entity was chartered in 1899 and incorporated as Slater Industrial and State Normal School of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Atkins had more ideas for the school and in 1899 began efforts to establish a hospital and nurse training department. These efforts resulted in the Slater Hospital, the city's first such facility for blacks. The hospital had the support of tobacco mogul R. J. Reynolds and other white and black town residents. With matching funds from Reynolds and those that Atkins raised, Slater Hospital and Nurse Training Department formally opened at the school's commencement exercises on May 14, 1902.
In 1905 the state purchased Slater Industrial/Normal and the Board of Education took over the title as well as full control of the school; it became a part of North Carolina's public education system. State control meant that their work would advance, and they would be reorganized as a standard two-year normal school. At that time, all black normal schools were essentially high schools with teacher-training courses included in the curriculum. Over the years, the school grew in enrollment, faculty size, facilities, and in finances. The General Education Board and the Rosenwald Foundation provided support as well, to be used for a dormitory, schoolroom, and library equipment. The school graduated its first class in the standard two-year normal program in 1920—the first offered entirely above high school level. High school work was discontinued in 1923.
Atkins was on leave from the presidency of Slater from 1904 to 1913. When he returned, he continued to oversee its continuous growth. He had been sought out to head other black colleges as well. In 1896, for example, he was asked to head A&T College when its founding president retired. In 1916, he was offered the presidency of Livingstone College but chose to remain at the school he had founded. In 1925 the General Assembly issued the institution a new charter, as Winston-Salem Teachers College, and it began to offer a full four-year program leading to the bachelor of science degree, with a specific mission to train teachers, supervisors, and principals. It became the first black institution in the nation to grant degrees for teaching in the elementary grades. In 1963, the name was changed to Winston-Salem State College, and in 1969, the institution became Winston-Salem State University. In 1972, it became one of the sixteen constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina, subject to the control of the Board of Governors.
Atkins was a devoted member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church. His love for his church led him to leave the presidency of Slater from 1904 to 1913. He remained the school's nominal head until his official return in 1913. His work as secretary of education for the church for sixteen years and secretary of the church extension for four years involved extensive travel throughout the United States; he also represented the church at two international ecumenical conferences in London (1901 and 1921) and one in Toronto (1911). In a speech given before the 1901 conference, Atkins made clear the importance of industrial education. Quoted in Newbold's Five North Carolina Negro Educators, he said, "We want to educate the people for service rather than for success. We are not opposed to industrial education; we believe in it. We believe that the Negro's industrial opportunity in … [the United States] is very great, and he ought to be prepared for it." He also appealed to those at the conference, to Methodists in the United States, and "friends of suffering and struggling humanity everywhere, to antagonize the idea that the Negro is to be prepared only for a field hand. Let him be made a man, and everything else will take care of itself," he added.
Atkins extended his work into many arenas. While at Livingstone College he became editor of The Southland, a monthly magazine that Joseph C. Price founded; the first number appeared in February 1890. He was president and secretary of the NCNTA, with his last presidency ending in 1927. In the 1880s Atkins and Charles H. Hunter edited the organization's publication, The Progressive Educator. Before his term ended in 1927, he gave a presidential speech before the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, held at State College (later South Carolina State University) in Orangeburg. Among other educators of the 1880s whose work he praised in his speech, excerpted in Newbold's work, Atkins cited Joseph C. Price, whom he called "the greatest Negro apostle of higher education" and Booker T. Washington, whom he recognized as "the greatest Negro apostle of industrialism." Both were "benefactors of their race as well as patriots and friends of humanity," he said.
Atkins was recognized in the state and beyond. In 1926, North Carolina sent an exhibit to the Sesquicentennial held in Philadelphia. He was represented in the exhibit as one of the seven leading black educators who had done the most to advance the education of blacks over the preceding twenty-five years. Howard University in Washington, D.C. awarded him the doctor of laws degree in 1926. In addition to his work as educator, Atkins was a member of the American Academy of Social and Political Science, the American Statistical Association, and the American Negro Academy. In civic affairs he was instrumental in the founding of Forsyth Savings and Trust Company, Winston's first black bank initiated in 1905–06 and chartered in 1907. He was a member of the local YMCA and assisted in the sale of Liberty Bonds during World War I. For nine years he was a member of the Advisory Committee of the North Carolina Division of Negro Work, which was a part of the North Carolina State Board of Charities and Public Welfare. As a member of the North Carolina Interracial Commission, according to Simona Atkins Allen's biography of her grandfather, he wrote to T. J. Woofter Jr. of Van-derbilt University that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in favor of integration on common carriers was "the result of our Interracial Commission in this State." Continuing in that letter, he said, "Negroes did not consider it any major achievement per se to ride the same bus with whites, but they were concerned about having an equal opportunity for better conditions in all phases of life."
Newbold's Five North Carolina Negro Educators described Atkins as "humble and unassuming" with irreproachable character. He was called "singularly modest and self-effacing" but spoke his mind when he found it appropriate. He was "honest, industrious, humble and yet aggressive and conservative." He knew that he had a mission to perform. Atkins was firm in his views on race. In his undated letter to Reverend Julius D. Dreher of Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, cited in Newbold's work, he wrote, "It is not the 'Jim Crow' car that troubles me; it is the spirit of public sentiment which demands the 'Jim Crow' car." As cited further in Newbold's work, to his students he often gave his favorite motto: "self support, self respect, and self defense."
On September 3, 1889 Atkins married Oleona Pegram (1867–1936), who taught at Scotia Women's College (later Barber Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina, and at the Slater school. She joined her husband in founding the institution at Winston-Salem and aided in its growth and development. Simon and Oleona Atkins had nine children—six sons (Russell Crowe; Harvey Bryan; Leland, who died early; Clarence Auter; Francis Loguen; and Jasper Alston) and three daughters (Miriam Atkins Hamblin; Olie Atkins Carpenter; and Eliza Atkins Gleason). Apparently Atkins' health was failing by the early 1930s. In 1934, he had an undisclosed but acute illness and resigned from his post at Winston-Salem. He was highly touted at the commencement exercises that year and elected president emeritus but was unable to attend the services. At that same meeting, the trustees elevated his son Francis L. Atkins, who had served as teacher, registrar, and dean at the school, to succeed his father as president beginning in 1934. After retirement, Atkins' health improved some, but he suffered a relapse and died in Winston-Salem on June 28, 1934, when he was seventy-one years old. He was buried in the local Evergreen Cemetery.
On June 11, 2005, the 142nd anniversary of his birth, the Chatham County Historical Association unveiled an historic marker near the school where Atkins received his early education. It was dedicated to Atkins in recognition of his achievements as educator and advocate of teacher training, college founder, and religious leader. The Depot Street School site has been named a state historical site. Simon G. Atkins Academic and Technology High School, which opened in 2005 as a part of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, also carries his name and continues the tradition of excellence provided by the original Atkins High School which was dedicated on April 2, 1931 and later served as a middle school.
Atkins, S. G. "Should the Negro Be Given an Education Different from that Given to the Whites?" Twentieth Century Negro Literature. Ed. D. W. Culp. Naperville, Ill.: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1902.
Caldwell, Arthur Bunyan. History of the American Negro. North Carolina Edition. Vol. IV Atlanta: A. B. Caldwell Publishing Co., 1921.
Gainor, Samuel M. "Simon Green Atkins." In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Vol. 1. Ed. William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
Newbold, N. C. Five North Carolina Negro Educators. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.
Allen, Simona Atkins. "Simon Green Atkins." Winston-Salem: Printed by the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, July 2005.
"Dedication Program for Simon G. Atkins Academic & Technology High School, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Monday, October 24, 2005, 9:30 a.m. and Sunday, October 30, 2005, 3:00 p.m." Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education, 2005.
"Dr. Simon G. Atkins." Presidents and Chancellors Gallery. http://www/wssu.edu/WSSU/About/Administration/Information%20Resources.C.G.%2o)Kelly%20Libr (Accessed 13 January 2006).
"Historical Marker Dedicated to Dr. Simon Green Atkins, Saturday, June 11." Chatham County Historical Association. http://www/chathamhistory.org/atkinsarchive.html (Accessed 8 February 2006).
Allen, Simona Atkins. Telephone interviews with Jessie Carney Smith, February 21 and 27, 2006.
The papers of Simon Green Atkins are in the archives of the C. G. O'Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University and in the Atkins Family Papers, in the family's possession.