When the N.C. General Assembly granted a charter in 1905 that would lead to the creation of a public school system in Mooresville, its wording reflected the realities of the Jim Crow South.
The town was now free to “hereby constitute a school district for white and colored children, to be known as the Mooresville Graded School District.”
Those white children and black children wouldn’t attend class together, of course.
A year later, Mooresville voters passed a bond issue and approved enacting a local tax to fund the creation of a dual school system.
Edmund Fitzgerald Fredericks would become the unlikely first principal of the “Mooresville Colored School” when it opened in September of 1906.
The native of what is now Guyana, Fredericks was a lawyer by trade, according to a biography prepared by Joel Reese, local history librarian with the Iredell County Public Library.
Fredericks started out as a teacher and later became headmaster of a Presbyterian school on Wakenaam Island, off the coast of what was then British Guiana. He was fluent in several languages, spoke with an unmistakable English accent and was “every inch a Britisher,” a friend once said.
At age 28, Fredericks sailed to the U.S. to follow his dream of becoming a lawyer. He ended up in the Tar Heel State in 1903 – “not a good year to be a black man in North Carolina,” Reese noted.
Fredericks immersed himself in law studies, completing a three-year program in two years at Shaw University in Raleigh. He passed the bar in 1905 and became a lawyer before officially getting is law degree from Shaw.
But Fredericks returned to education when he took the job at the new Mooresville school.
“Fredericks was better educated than 99 percent of the people in Iredell County, but still faced the same legal and social restrictions that all black men did in that time,” Reese wrote. “Fredericks never gave in to self-pity. He was a self-made man who through his own intelligence and hard work had gone from being a boy tending cattle in British Guiana to being both an attorney and school principal in the United States.”
The school opened on Sept. 17 with a two-person faculty – principal-teacher Fredericks and teacher Melissa Murray, according to Reese.
More than 100 students enrolled on the first day, and by November the two teachers had 120 students – more than two-thirds of school-aged black children. Just 44 percent of school-aged white children attended school at the time.
Fredericks touted the community’s support in a Jan. 3, 1907 “Report of the Colored School” to Mooresville’s newspaper, The Enterprise.
“Since my appointment as principal of this school, I have attempted to arouse the people to a sense of self-help,” he wrote. “How well I have succeeded in the venture you will decide on examining the following figures.”
Those figures included $45.60 raised from the community through programs put on by the students.
“We are glad to print the above report from E. Fitz Frederick, principal of the colored school of Mooresville,” the paper’s editor noted. “It is just and right that the public should know what he is doing for his race, and we are glad to say, doing well.”
The 1916-1917 school year was Fredericks’ last as principal in Mooresville. With World War I underway, Fredericks moved to England to serve as an accounting clerk in the British War Office.
While in London, Fredericks was a prominent member of the African Progress Union, which worked to expand educational opportunities on the continent. He also was a delegate to to the first Pan-African Congress in Paris.
Fredericks returned to Guiana in 1919 and became an important figure in the courts and in politics.
In 1926, he was elected to the legislature and was unopposed in his re-election two years later. British King George V appointed Fredericks as the first African-Guyanese member of the Executive Council, which governed the commonwealth.
Fredericks died on April 6, 1935 at the age of 60 – more than 2,000 miles from the school he started nearly three decades earlier. It would be yet another three decades after his death that the Mooresville Graded School District desegregated.