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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Work at Penn School in the 1940s

Kester discusses his work at Penn School, an establishment geared towards educating African Americans primarily in vocational and agricultural occupations. Kester went to work at Penn School during the 1940s and reorganized the school in order to better serve the students, faculty, and community. Here, he briefly describes the school's curriculum, the influx of veteran students following World War II, and the relationship between the school and the community.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MARY FREDERICKSON:
Were you optimistic when you went there?
HOWARD KESTER:
I felt that it was an opportunity to demonstrate what could be done through teaching agriculture wise, and community wise.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was your ultimate goal to set up something on the order of the Delta Cooperative?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, no. The goal was to see that we got first-rate teachers, which were hard to find; and make the school what it had been climbing to achieve for years.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
So you wanted to keep it as a school?
HOWARD KESTER:
We wanted to keep it as a school. We wanted to make the school serve the people - all the people and with the help of the faculty and workers we drew up plans for this. We finally turned the school over to the county and later Courtney Siceloff and his wife set up the Penn Community Center. He came from Carolina; he and his wife used to work with the Fellowship in the headquarters of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen under Nelle Morton in Chapel Hill.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
How do you . . . Sis . . .
HOWARD KESTER:
Siceloff, and they . . . I came to the point after about five years . . . the way I felt that this was ending . . . this is what the Foundations were telling me too . . . the reason I couldn't get the money I needed, was that secondary education was held to be no business of private philanthropy, that it was a state job, and so I advised the Trustees fully about the situation.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Did you have a good Board of Trustees?
HOWARD KESTER:
Mostly quite good, yes, and I still hear from several of them.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Did you involve the community more in the school than it had been before?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well in a way we did, and in a way we repulsed them because my Alice was Head of the Instruction and she took it seriously. When we wnet down there . . . I don't know whether they kept the rolls or not, but anyway the kids would think up excuses not to come to class, you know, they said they had to "go after the cows" . . . this, that or the other, you know. They'd always burn wood at the School, and it kept the kids and the men busy, just constantly cutting wood. They must have had 40 to 45 fires to keep going and I ordered the first coal that had ever been on the island, and the small children would throw the coal at one another and get dirty.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
How many students were there when you were there?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well it varied. We had from the first grade through the twelfth, we had right at 250 to 275, I guess, then at one time we had about 250 veterans.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And the regular students didn't come.
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
They were there also?
HOWARD KESTER:
All there, and we were teaching auto mechanics, blacksmithing, and leather work, carpentry, masonry, and basketry, and you know, various things that would give the veterans a chance to make a living. When they came to school I had quite a time trying to keep the veterans from playing craps all the time.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
These were all black veterans who had all been in World War II?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Were most of them from around there?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, some of them came from the mainland as well as the islands . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Why did you feel that you might have repulsed some of the people in the community?
HOWARD KESTER:
Because they prided themselves on their lack of prejudices . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Toward blacks?
HOWARD KESTER:
Toward whites, and I knew perfectly well that there was as much hatred in their hearts at times for the white man as in the white man's heart for the Negro, and I didn't hesitate to tell them.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Do you think that they resented the school's long presence there with a white at the top?
HOWARD KESTER:
They resented it and at the same time we went up on tuition. It was $1 a year, and we couldn't survive on that, you know, and I put it up to $10 because they could afford it, their parents could afford it, and this just raised a hullabalou.