The Remarkable Dr. Smallwood's School

Adapted from Claremont Manor: A History, Chapter XIX

John Jefferson Smallwood was an extraordinary individual. By his own account, he was born a slave in Rich Square, North Carolina, and separated from his family in infancy. He claimed a Ph.D. degree, and he certainly had wide experience on the lecture circuit when he came to Surry County to build a school that would offer a high level of education to disadvantaged rural Black youths. The institute he founded in 1892 operated without public money for thirty-six years.

Image courtesy of Eve Gregory

Image courtesy of Eve Gregory


Dr. Smallwood's early education was hard won as he worked by day on a cotton plantation and studied on his own at night. He had a brilliant mind and an intense, charismatic personality which drove him to elude or surmount all obstacles. His prowess as a public speaker began to develop during his involvement in the temperance movement at Shaw University. Later he worked tirelessly on annual lecture tours to raise money for his school.

The Temperance Industrial and Collegiate Institute offered three years of high school and four years of college level courses in either industrial or collegiate departments. Students came from nearby towns and from as far away as New York City, Washington, D. C., and Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Smallwood worked constantly to keep the school open and solvent. Not only did he teach there, but he also followed a grueling lecture schedule and solicited patronage from every available quarter. The school lands, and even the horses, piano, and tableware, were mortgaged when necessary. The students worked as hard as he did, growing as much of their own food as possible and performing plays and musical programs for appreciative, and often paying, audiences.

The school's major buildings were built in 1912, just before Dr. Smallwood died. The most imposing structure was Lincoln Hall, a four-story brick building appraised at $41,000 in 1912. More important to residents of the Town of Claremont was an electric generating plant with street lights, poles, transformers, and meters for houses in the town. The school's generator supplied electricity to the town for years after its installation in 1912. 

Lincoln Hall, Image courtesy of Eve Gregory

Lincoln Hall, Image courtesy of Eve Gregory

Although the school's records apparently are lost, more than two thousand students must have passed through its doors from 1892 to 1928. A few still live in Surry County.

Above all else, John Smallwood was deeply dedicated to helping the youth of his race. He wrote on 14 September 1912, "I have ruined my health and my life trying to complete this work." Fifteen days later he died at the age of forty-nine.

Dr. Smallwood had married in 1900, and his wife Rosa helped with the school until his death in 1912. Their daughter Thelma was born in 1901, but there were no other children. Mrs. Smallwood and Thelma moved to Richmond after his death.

Mary E. C. Drew has written an excellent biography of Dr. Smallwood. She is related to him and has access to family records and information never before available to the public. For all the inside scoop, read Divine Will, Restless Heart!

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Eve S. Gregory