By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Long before she ran for public office, former Hoke County Commissioner Ellen McNeill wanted to document and preserve the history of White Oak School. Along the way, she ended up collecting the stories of many Hoke County men and women who played important roles in the community – but might have gone unnoticed in the history books.
This month the stories she has spent the last 15 years researching are being published in McNeill’s new book, “Special People and Agencies of Hoke County, North Carolina.”
When she sits down to talk about how she put the book together, McNeill can pull out a giant binder packed full of her sources: newspaper articles, firsthand accounts, photos and much more.
“I’ve been collecting material all my life. I’ve got boxes of it,” she said.
While researching the book, her collection of stories of individuals, agencies and non-profits expanded weekly as she reached out to some of Hoke’s movers and shakers and their families to gather more information.
“In most cases I’ve got information either from the people, or from the newspaper,” McNeill said.
The completed book details the contributions made by many people in Hoke County, particularly women, African-Americans and Native Americans. Among the profiles are public servants like Betty Smith, the Raeford assistant city manager for 52 years – “and counting,” the book points out; Charles C. Gibbs, who taught commercial education in Upchurch high School in the 1950s and 1960s; and Rev. Cohildia McKenzie Lyons, a gospel preacher, educator and civic leader who along with her husband, Livingston Lyons, spent many years working for the betterment of the citizens of Hoke County.
There are many “firsts” included: Philip Kelton, the first African-American integrated into Hoke County Schools; Leanne Shepley, the first and “probably the only” Hoke resident female NASCAR certified mechanic; Judge Regina M. Joe, the first African-American judge elected in Hoke County; Mary Neil King, the first woman elected to the Raeford City Council; and Mitchell “Mitch” Tyler, the first Native American superintendent of Hoke County Schools.
One of the more personal entries is the story of Hannah Springs, a teacher at White Oak School who taught McNeill and many other students in the years before integration.
“Hannah Springs’ name invokes warm emotions and deeply rooted memories that influenced many of us in our community. This indomitable woman became a determining force in my life,” McNeill wrote. “Thinking about Hannah Springs always brings to mind three words – White Oak School and vividly takes me back to a simpler time. My public education began in the three-room schoolhouse, White Oak, as a student of Mrs. Springs.”
The author recalled how Springs would do everything for her students, from building up a fire to keep them warm in winter to preparing meals for children in grades 1-7. The teachers went above and beyond and set an example, McNeill said.
“They taught in uncomfortable conditions because of love of people, dedication to God, duty, and learning a living,” she wrote.
White Oak School closed when Scurlock School opened in the fall of 1960. McNeill continues seeking to keep the memory of White Oak School alive through multiple efforts to share the history of the school, and the people whose lives were touched by it and the teachers who worked there.
McNeill’s new book also contains stories of local agencies such as the history of the integration of the Hoke County Army National Guard, with members of the Upchurch High School Class of 1964-1965; and the integration of Puppy Creek Fire Department which McNeill believes was among the first, if not the very first fire department in North Carolina to be fully integrated.
The author said she took some inspiration for the format from a history book that, in much the same way, collected biographies of fascinating African-Americans throughout history.
Due to printing errors with the first print run, McNeill is currently working to have a second print run of the book published. She will have draft versions of the book available, and the second run will be available for purchase in the future. She already had about 100 pre-orders arranged for folks interested in buying a copy, and former school superintendent Dr. Freddie Williamson had wanted to put copies of the book in local school libraries, McNeill said.
McNeill will be part of a book-signing event for “Special People and Agencies of Hoke County, North Carolina” Saturday, October 16. The event will be held at the Holiday Inn near Lowes in the Cliffdale area of Fayetteville, 2501 Two Bale Lane. The doors will open for the morning session at 10 a.m.