I have fond memories of my maternal grandmother, Ernestine Wright Hatchett. We called her Madear. My memories of us include being in the kitchen together, of her famous caramel cake, and of her letting me eat shrimp for the first time. I remember that she worked as a cook for the local country club and later as a restaurant manager. She was the definition of southern hospitality. Her door was always open to anyone in the neighborhood, and she always had something cooking. She is where my love of cooking started, although I don’t remember helping her cook. But I remember she always seemed so happy when she was cooking and feeding people. Anytime I want to feel closer to her, or when I have those moments when my brain just won’t slow down, I always go to the kitchen to cook and relax.
Madear was in part how this journey got it’s foundation. She died in 1991 when I was 12, and that summer following her death our family was still dealing with that loss. That’s the summer I read Alex Haley’s Roots with my paternal grandmother. I’m not sure if the choice of Roots was intentional because of what our family was going through, but all I know is I give both my grandmother’s credit for introducing me to that book that started me on this family history journey and led to my love of history.
I must admit that I have some genealogy guilt when it comes to Madear. So much of my time and research has gone into researching my paternal grandfather and other relatives that I haven’t met that I don’t feel like I haven’t properly researched her life. I have memories of her and with her and that may be why I let my research of her life go on the back burner. It was a couple of years ago when my mom casually brought up that Madear went to a private high school in Woodruff county that prompted me to start investigating Madear’s life before she married more. As the story was told to me, there was some sort of incident with Madear at the public school and it was decided that she needed to change schools. With her being the youngest girl in the family and all of her older brothers had entered the military, it was decided that they could afford it. So she started attending Cotton Plant Academy. This was a private school that was run by the Presbyterian church for African-American children. I had no idea that this kind of school existed in the 1930s in a community where my ancestors lived. So as soon as I returned home, I began researching this school.
I learned the basic information about the school online. The Presbyterian church opened schools in the south during the 1860s to educate newly freed slaves. Cotton Plant Academy opened in the 1880s and consolidated with Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy in 1933. Cotton Plant Academy closed in 1950. So then I contacted Woodruff county schools in search of some records from Cotton Plant Academy. I was told they had none. Then I contacted the Presbyterian church (a generic email I found online) and was happily surprised when I got a response a few weeks later from the Presbyterian Historical Society. I was told then that when Cotton Plant Academy closed the records were sent to Boggs Academy in Keysville, Georgia. So of course I then looked up Boggs Academy online and learned that school closed in the 1984. Mr. Koch from the Presbyterian Historical Society was kind enough to review the Boggs Academy records that were housed there, but was unable to find anything from Cotton Plant Academy. There was a fire in February 1965 at Boggs Academy and records including student transcripts were destroyed. He also encouraged me to read a book about the Presbyterian school in The Rise and Decline of the Program of Education for Black Presbyterians of the United Presbyterian Church by Inez Moore Parker. I was happy to be able to find a copy at the University of Arkansas library.
Then I got to thinking about my parent’s high school, W.F. Branch. Their school closed in 1970, but they still have alumni reunions. So maybe Boggs Academy does something similar. So I googled Boggs Academy reunions and discovered that they too have school reunions. I sent an email to the contact email address explaining my research and what I was looking for, but I never got a response. A year later, just last month, I decided to look go back to the Boggs reunion website and send another email. That’s when I saw that there was a woman who was writing her dissertation for her PhD on Boggs Academy. I looked her up on Facebook and sent her a message explaining my research and what I was looking for. She responded a few days later informing me that she would be going to North Carolina to the Presbyterian Historical Society to do some research and would be happy to add Cotton Plant Academy to her research items.
Researching Cotton Plant Academy reminds me that genealogy is more of a marathon than sprint. I know I won’t be able to find everything out about this school today or tomorrow. But I know that I’m on the right track to finding what’s out there. It may take a while, but I know that I will learn all that I can about this school and in turn learn more about my Madear. And this is why my journey continues…
To read more about education in my family click HERE.