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Carolyn McIlwain Interview

McIlwain, Carolyn
Crawford, Vickie
Date of Interview: 
Religion; Reconstruction; African American church; McClintock Presbyterian Church; Rosenwald schools; Steele Creek Community; Women and religion
Carolyn McIwain, a lifelong member of McLintock Presbyterian Church, discusses the formation and evolution of the church. Emphasizes the increasing role of women in the church throughout the years, spearheaded by her mother, who was one of the first female elders. She also discusses the formation of the Rosenwald schools for African Americans and the state of the school system at the time she attended school in the early 1960s.
Interview Setting: 
The Levine Museum of the New South on North College Street
Levine Museum of the New South, Amazing Grace Series
Collection Description: 
Vickie Crawford interviewed a number of prominent African-Americans for the Amazing Grace Exhibit on Southern Black Churches for the Levine Museum of the New South. This interview took place in front of a live audience.
Interview Audio: 
VC (Vickie Crawford, interviewer): Morning. Thanks for coming out. I have a cold this morning, so I hope I'll be halfway audible [laughter] with this weather change. We'll begin the oral history interview in earnest now and, first of all, this is an interview with Carolyn McIlwain. Today is Saturday, November the 16th, the interview takes place at the Museum of the New South, here in Charlotte, North Carolina. The interviewee is Vickie Crawford. Carolyn is a lifelong member of McClintock Presbyterian Church. You grew up in that church. You were baptized in that church. You're now a deacon in the church. I mean you've had every office in the church probably, except that of minister. [Laughter] Why don't you first tell us a little bit about the history of McClintock and its relationship to the Steele Creek community? Let's start there.
CM (Carolyn McIlwain): OK. First of all, Presbyterians--. The deacons-you were expressing deacon- is not the top of the church line in the Presbyterian church. Your ordained--. The top line is an elder, which your church family elect you to be. And I am from a family, my family does have elders in the church. My mother was the first female, one of the first female elders at McClintock Presbyterian Church, and right now I have my cousin here who's also an elder of McClintock Presbyterian Church. And my grandfather, who died at 104 years old, was the oldest member of, of McClintock Presbyterian Church, and he was also an ordained elder there. I'm, in the introduction, I am a descendant of the first black minister of McClintock Presbyterian Church. It is the first black Presbyterian church that was built in Mecklenburg County. It is in the Steele Creek community.
VC: And McClintock is 131 years old. It was founded in 1865, right?
CM: You're correct.
VC: Talk, talk more about that.
CM: Yes.
VC: Give us--
CM: It was founded in 8, found 1865, right after the Civil War. We, the members of McClintock attend Steele Creek Presbyterian Church. During that time, the slaves--. During slavery time, the masters would let, here in Mecklenburg County, would let their slaves attend church, but they attend church in the balcony--.
VC: Um-hum.
CM: Of the church. And at McClintock, where most of our members in that community--. They went to Steele Creek Presbyterian Church and they attended church in the balcony of the church. In--. It was three men, three white ministers who thought right after the Civil War that they would give us a, a church to attend, the, the sharecroppers on the land in that area. And it was M, Murkland, Alexander, and Smith. Those were the three ministers that came together to build, help build, McClintock Presbyterian Church. And at that time, McClintock, which is the namesake of our church, gave the, the construction, the wood, and helped build the church at that time. So that made it real nice. This was a, people coming together, and then there were people who weren't quite ready to move on because several families in the church were in a second group to move on to McClintock. And at that time, we also know that Presbyterians are very much into, interested in education. Johnson C. Smith and Barber-Scotia College, which you've probably heard, is a Presbyterian Church, and with the education we--. Preachers and teachers were the two studies that were being taught at the churches. And my grandfather, Reverend Matthew, great-great-grandfather, great was the first black minister at McClintock Presbyterian Church and, believe it or not, our first minister, Reverend Alexander, was a white minister. So at that time, integration in the churches were coming along to help us [pause] to be able to worship together during that time.
VC: What, what do you think was the appeal of the denomination of, of being Presbyterian for African Americans, particularly at a time when most black folk coming out of bondage were primarily Baptist and Methodist. You talked about education. Want to elaborate on that a little bit more?
CM: Yes. From my--. Presbyterians were very much interested in the education of our children, and you can see that through the church schools. And McClintock is one of the schools, one of the churches that did have a school, and it was called the McClintock Rosenwald School that was built in, in the year 1922-23 for the sharecroppers, the, in the, in the county to have a school to attend because--. And they had to walk to that school, to McClintock Rosenwald School, and you may see there we've had fundraisers trying to rebuild, trying to restruct our McClintock Rosenwald School. And in fact I have my mother here who did attend McClintock Rosenwald School and several of the members of my church. And as I've said, my church is basically a family church.
VC: Um-hm.
CM: And I do have family members here who attended the Rosenwald school.
VC: Let's just talk a little bit about Rosenwald schools. What was a Rosenwald School? There were, what, about eleven or twelve here in Charlotte. What was that?
CM: First of, OK. There was Julius Rosenwald, who was a Jew. And he was a member of the Sears, the Roebuck family. He used to--. He was a very rich man, and he went out and went to the counties of these states and found that our black children--, black children that were sharecroppers did not have schools to attend. And he with, went together with Booker T. Washington and they began to build schools in North Car--, in the South, in the deep South. North Carolina, from my understanding, we had about 180 schools that were built by Julian Rosenwald for the kids to attend. The schools didn't go through to the twelfth grade. They went from first through sixth or seventh grade. And from my understanding, talking with some of the members of my church, the older members that did attend, after the seventh grade they ha--, they went back to the farm, that was the end of their education. If you were lucky enough to have someone to--. First of all, let me say this, Charlotte-Mecklenburg had only one high school and it was Second Ward High School. And if you were lucky enough or knew someone that lived in the inner city that you could go to high school, if your parents could have you off the farm, especially males. And I think that hindered a lot of our males from having an education during that, in, in those years.
VC: What years are we talking about? Would this be--?
CM: We're talking about the 40s. We're talking about 20s and 30s, that--. During that time, because in the 40s they began to build county schools and there was difference between city schools and county schools. They began to build county schools which was Sterling, Pineville, Sterling, J. H. Gunn, Torrance-Lytle. I know right now off of memory those are the three that I, oh, Plato Price. Those were the four schools for the county. The kids, after leaving the Rosenwald School or leaving the, the area, they can't--. The busses did run, began to run at that time so they were, had their way to school. With their secondary books and their secondary desks, they were able to attend school and graduate from high school.
VC: And what do you mean about those secondary books and those secondary desks?
CM: Well it, what I mean is that, you know, we didn't get the new books. I didn't get the new books, that they would look through the books to see that white kids had the books first and when they were worn and torn, then we inherit them as black children. And we could see this because in the books you could see the people name, the people who had your book before you, you would see their name, you would see their scribbling in the books. The desks were, had markers on the desks, and you could see that. And that was during my time and that was well early, that was in the 60s during that time. And I could remember reading "Sally Sue loves, plus, love Jim" on a desk and that wasn't, that was my desk but Sally had it first. So that one of the things that we, you know, you think about that things have changed, that you are able enough now to get a new book, but then you didn't have a new book. And you would turn your books in, you didn't keep them, so for the next class.
VC: Let's move on to talk a little bit more to talk about your personal history and the sense of family that you got growing up in the church. Your, all of your biological family were a part of the church but in addition to that you talk about a church family. I think even in the African American we, community we use the phrase "church home" and that suggests a whole lot about what goes on in terms of the network of the church. You want to talk about what it was like growing up with that kind of cohesiveness and that support and that love and --.
CM: It was very, very nice. I lived on a farm. My grandfather had a farm. He raised the, the vegetables. My, I--. It was just, my family surrounded us there. It was very small. I had three cousins. I had a brother. My mother and father, aunt and uncle they built homes around, their, mo-their, my mother's mother and father and we were there, I can think of all the good times that we've, we had. We had our own private playhouse that my grandfather had built, that he built. And my cousin Phyllis, who's in the audience, she always wanted Papa to say it was her playhouse, and like I said, he lived to be a 104, and Phyl, I don't think he ever told you it was really your playhouse. [Laughter] And it all of our playhouse. And I can always remember we played hopscotch under the tree. And it was just the three of us, we would, and we were on York Road which was a busy street at that time, and well still is, and we would count cars. We would, my grandmother, and I thought, at that time, and we lived in the city, I lived in the city until I was eight and it was a blessing to move to the country. And we had our, and it was a time when we could leave your door--. My mother and father worked, my grandmother was home, she would cook, we would sit down and eat lunch with her and with Papa, who was a farmer and who would come home with the horses, Mare and Bud, those was the horses. And Phyllis and I and Evelyn and Joyce and my brother and cousins who would come to visit, the funniest what we would do, we would, Papa had a, a wagon with hay in it and the mules would take it out, we would ride out to field at that time, that's what we'd call it, we would ride out there just to ride cause Mare and Bud was pulling the wagon. And we would walk back home. And we would look at the time for Papa to come home for dinner, for lunch and dinner, we would get, go back out there and ride back home. Then we would just time the times, you know, that he would come home to eat, to rest. And my grandmother who was a, a pillar of strength, a strong black woman, she would fix dinner and we always sat around the table. And we sat at lunchtime, and that was a happy time, but then you went home, you could go home and get a bologna meat sandwich or whatever, but you'd always come back to Mama, and Mama would always say "you need to rest." And church, we had to go to Sunday school. My granddaddy and grandmother went to Sunday school religiously, every Sunday, whether your parents went, you went to Sunday school. You got dressed and you rode with Mama and Papa to McClintock Church and you were in Sunday school. And, Sunday school at one time, well, it was, it was interesting because that was where you got your learning experience about, a, about the Bible, your first experience about the Bible, in the church, in a church setting. And a happy time at McClintock also was vacation Bible school. And we had the best time, vacation Bible school and you would see, and people would come from out of town during that time and, for vacation Bible school. And you would just play, and learn, you have your Bible study and you made, you had crafts, not the nice crafts you have today. You would have crafts like putting your hand in a, some clay and let it get hard and you'd have all five fingers and that would be your project. Or you would paste, you'd get a funny paper and paste it on a piece of paper and you would have your little book. And things were just basically, you were more, you were together, you were a family during that time.
VC: You said McClintock was a family church, do you want to talk a bit more about that, the families that made up the church, that it's not a church even to this day, I mean it's a church where people have, that are families, that generations have gone through that church.
CM: You're correct. The first families were bas, the Potts, the Griers the Hoovers, the Caruthers, the Woods. We still have those names in our church. And, as I was saying, my, I was a descendant of Rev. Irons, who was my grandmother's grandfather, the first black minister there. And the teachers that taught at the Rosenwald School some of them even were members of McClintock. And you walk through our cemetery, you will see the family status there with the same names. And we, well it was a family church because I must say I didn't find a husband there because it was always a, a family member you could, [laughter] that you would see and I don't, my parents, my mo, my father's from Lancaster, SC, my mother didn't find one either, it, they were her cousins also. So, [laughter] so, it, it basically, it was a family that--.
VC: Those were your cousins?
CM: Just cousins. Cousins, and today, you know, you look around you still see your same cousins. You see the same family and my parents, my grandparents who were the Griers, and my grandmother who was a McGill, and they lived and was raised in the Steele Creek community. But they weren't family, but they got together and then that brought on a whole, you were related under the McGill side and Grier side, so you were still, so it became a family church and with the family ties that are there.
VC: And, and how would you say the church and that fam, that strong family tie, how did that shape you as a young adult, in what ways may, might that have an impact on you as a, as an adult woman? Now you are a deacon in the church, you've taught Sunday school in the church. Did you sing in the choir?
CM: Presently I am part of the gospel choir and we are getting ready for our concert the last Sunday in this month. But, yes, that was an impact there, being a part of the family, being a part of a family church. And that was a part that when on Sunday mornings you went to see your family. You went to church to see you, I can remember my great-grandmother sitting on the seat. When you went to visit she might not have known who you were but you would go and you would speak to her every morning, every Sunday morning. And, so it was just family ties and educational. And I think that's what help made me want to become a part of the education part of the McClintock Presbyterian Church. We was talking about the different government bodies of the church, the session. And at that point, now the session years ago chose the deacons, who we are a part of the structure of the church, to become a part of the education department of the church. And we do have an education department which, which includes the, includes camps and conferences, daily vacation Bible school, Sunday school and any educational atmosphere that we share at the church with the community and the church family. And becoming a deacon has really inspired me with the children. I don't have any children but it does inspire me to work with the children and to be a part of their growing up because I often think of when we have our christening in the Presbyterian Church the congregation stands to help when this child is small, to help to be a part, answer yes, to be a part of this child's life. So you are always a part, a parent being a part of the child's life in the church.
VC: When did things open up for women in terms of being able to have these different roles in the church because it, it wasn't always true that women could be deacons, or like your mother, it, was one of the first female elders of the church. When did that open up and what brought that about?
CM: I think during the time of growth and when women began to speak out and began to be more a part of church life because at that time, before then men, they, this was, for black men this, the church, there were only black ministers, and for black men the doors of the church opened up for them. And I think that, during that time, it just kind, it kept us women on their own little level and you only had to ask your husband or whatever what was going on in the church, they would tell you if they wanted to. Well, and I think in the early seventies, and, the late sixties and early seventies during integration caused the doors to open up for our Presbyterian women, to begin to speak out. And my mother became an elder in '72, yeah, I think it was '72, and when she, that was a part of her, the doors opening at McClintock Church. And now, it has opened so far that mostly now our women are speaking out into church. At our church it seems like the men are having a closed mouth and the women are speaking out and getting things done. [Laughter]
VC: And why do you suppose that is? So you're seeing that there has been a shifting in terms of gender roles within the church, now you're saying that men in an earlier time were, participated more but now you're finding that there is an even larger participation on behalf of women in the church, and certainly in leadership roles. Is that right?
CM: Yes, I'm thinking the two, well this is my, my thought, it's because there are more women in the church than men. Men are falling by the wayside attending church and they're, they are putting the women in front which is the way things are happening at McClintock. The women are in front, they are the talkative ones and now we do have in, in the Presbyterian, we do have some Pres--, female ministers now. So I think that has made a difference.
VC: Your, you shared with me in our little pre-interview a program from 1995, the program from the 1995 homecoming that you all had at the church. First of all you might want to tell what a homecoming is and then, the theme for that homecoming was "empowering the vision through generations" and I just wanted to ask you to share with us or talk about how you all are doing that or going about empowering through generations, [pause] empowering the visions?
CM: This was our 130-year anniversary, that's homecoming. Homecoming at McClintock is when all, everybody comes back home again, it's almost like a high school homecoming but you're thinking of the good Lord, you're thinking of the blessings that the Lord has bestowed upo--, upon you within that year. And each family would have their captains and raise their money. And this was the time when we would raise most of our money, we would have fellowship dinner and speakers the morning, in the morning, have dinner together and then in the afternoon we would have speakers and we would all, it was, at McClintock it was a all day service, practically, because you're there at church all day which you're not all day on Sunday. So it made a, a, a very good, a very big impact on having family members coming home again and worshipping together again. And in nineteen, October the fourteenth, 1995, McClintock celebrated a large homecoming. It was a great day. And we had a homecoming committee who gave us, who made our booklets that were given, and ads were made, and I thought this was, this was a very very nice packet that the church gave to the congregation. And with pictures of our church members, past and present.
VC: So how are you all carrying out that theme? What, because you're working with the young people, what empowering through generations, how are you doing that or what do you think are some of the issues for young people today and the needs for them that the church might be able to help them with?
CM: OK. First of all, I think basically getting our children to come to church and giving them roles in the church. With the deacons we have started our kids ushering. We have a small choir with kids and, believe it or not, these kids have real robes they march in. And we have a Neely Potts and Debbie Johnston who are the directors and deacons who are over the children choir. We have Sunday school morn, Sunday school service trying to make it interesting for our children to come and be a part because, see, that's our church of tomorrow. And we want them stay at McClintock because we would love to see McClintock grow and to be there another hundred years with some of the same family names still there. And that's a part of, we, we're reaching out with our choir, it goes out to the nursing homes and give them a little concert. And they have their own concerts and their own invitation to church choirs with children choirs and adult choirs. And when you see your church doing something, and with the Rosenwald school was one of the reasons we wanted to keep it historic, we wanted to have it there for our children to be able to have Sunday school classes, vacation Bible school classes and to know that we care and we want them to be a part of McClintock Church family and to be there for us and we're, we're there for them. And able enough to give them the things that as a community, as a church family, give them the things that they will need to let us know that they care and that we care and we're there to help, to teach and, not only by everyday life, but the good Lord Jesus Savior Christ.
VC: OK. Now you were co-chair of the Rosenwald committee to restore the Rosenwald school which is still on the property that's owned by the church, the structure is standing and you all just recently a couple of weeks ago had a, what, a groundbreaking ceremony for it. Could you talk about that?
CM: Well, we didn't have groundbreaking but we had an open house. It was restored. And I started this project in 1989, that's the first we wanted to restore the building. It became a historic site in 1989 and we worked up until now to get the building finished that we can be proud of and use. Well we have got, have got the building finished, almost finished and it is usable. But in the midst of redoing the building we lost our historic ramification but hopefully we be able recapture it with, in time. But it is there, and it is, we did use it and we did have a dedication service a month ago. And we invited all the old graduates from the Rosenwald school back to our church and church family and to the school to rekindle some of the old time that they had there. And it was really nice to invite the old students, I don't want to say old, but the students back to McClintock Rosenwald school. It was very, very nice. And it was very nice ceremony.
VC: OK. Why don't we end the interview proper here and open it up for dialog with the audience so that the audience can ask questions and we can have some conversation with your mother and some of the other people who are here. Your mother's a historian of the church, I understand, she'll, she has lot of history to share. She was a nurse before retiring here in Charlotte and you, incidentally, Carolyn, founded the local of chapter of the National--.
CM: One of them--.
VC: Black Nurses Association which is, that's very important to bring out. So why don't we open it up to the audience for some conversation.
CM: But first of all, let me correct you with that. My cousin Phyllis Bridges is the other co-founder of the National Black Nurses Association and her sister, which is my cousin, was the founder of the National Black Nurses Association, Charlotte Chapter. And we celebrated our twelve years last weekend being exist, in existence. And so, and then my mother is a member of the National Black Nurses Association and some of our church members also.
VC: Oh, wonderful. Well let's open it up to the audience and have some conversation and some questions. There are a lot of young people here, maybe they might have some questions about the church and--.
UN: Would anybody like to share anything about the history of the ( ) congregation ( )?
VC: Yeah, please. [question from the audience is inaudible]
VC: Wow, that's interesting. Where's that located? [response from the audience is inaudible]
CM: Well, do your church have the family cemetery?
UN: Yes.
CM: OK. We do too at McClintock. And we, with my grandfather, he was the janitor of the church for years, and we would visit him at church and when we would go he would take you through the graveyard and he would name every, whether you had a marker or not, everyone in the cemetery. And you would stand there and you would look and he would talk about what this person thus did and the other at the church. So that was, and we still have our, and we're still burying family members there at our church today. [question from the audience is inaudible]
VC: Yeah, go on please.
CM: It's very small, it's small, its 175 other--. [murmuring in the audience]
CM: I'm thinking it's now, if you could, the elders we have sitting in the audience, if you could, please, correct me. [response from the audience inaudible]
VC: Why don't you, yes --. Um-hum. Um-hum. [response from the audience inaudible]
VC: [Laughter] OK. We will allow that. [response from the audience inaudible]
CM: Well we do have, we do have quite a few men that still attend church. We, and they're from, most of them are from another generation. And somehow, they aren't as, and maybe they've just kind of, maybe like cooled off a little bit, not as feisty as sometime they need to be. [response from the audience inaudible]
VC: I think your mother wants to say something. What? [response from the audience inaudible]
VC: Biddle, when it was Biddle Memorial Institute.
CM: Johnson C. Smith. [response from the audience inaudible]
CM: Well, at McClintock our, one of our ministers was the Reverend Wordsley, across, First Presbyterian, across the street, was the minister there. And he, when he first come out of his church, out of school, came to McClintock. He was our, he was a minister that came to McClintock. And then we had Rev. W.D. Baxter who stayed at our church for twenty-eight years. And so, you know, we've had quite a few good ministers, Reverend McLean was the minister that baptized me at McClintock. So we're still seeing, you know, faces and involving faces and past ministers at our church.
VC: Think you had a question back in the back there. OK. I thought I saw you trying to get in. Any other comments from the audience, or questions? No? [response from the audience inaudible]
VC: Yeah the posters here, uh-huh. Yeah, talk about Rosenwald fun days.
CM: OK. Rosenwald fun days was instituted by my cousin Phyllis Bridges and the late Eddie Salem White, they brought this fundraiser to the committee and we act on it. It was a good fundraiser, for the children. You can see with the pictures they came, we had, it was like an old time picnic but it was like having a carnival. And we had food, and we sold food, and the kids played. And it was the involvement of the church and the church family. And, as you can see we had clowns and dunking booths and different games for the kids. And it was a very interesting, and it was a very fun, time. And the whole church participated with finances and with donations of food, and we had the best time. And it was like a community, it brought the church together. It was something that we, that they came together to do. And it was a fundraiser to, for the Rosenwald school, one of the best fundraisers that we had, one of the better ones that we've had. And I thought it would be very nice to share the fun times that we had at McClintock. [response from the audience inaudible]
CM: No, it was for the public. We publicized it, we sent out flyers, we had it announced in the different churches. It was for the community, anyone that would like to, and anybody could just stop by and buy a fish sandwich out of the old black pot. [response from the audience inaudible]
CM: It was very good. It was, yeah, from the community and the church family, very good, very good response. In fact, it was so good we had it for two years straight. [Pause]
VC: OK. Well, I've just enjoyed talking with you again today. You have so much wonderful, rich information to share. And your mother as well. This will end our session and we thank you all coming out this morning. This was an interview with Carolyn McIlwain. [Applause]
CM: Thank you.
VC: Thank you, it was wonderful. I enjoyed that.