Between 1900 and 1920, the population of Winston-Salem more than doubled, until, in 1920, at about 47,000, it became the largest in the state of North Carolina. Ardmore, where it was said that they were building a house a day, was the fastest growing white neighborhood. The black population was also exploding, growing rapidly northward from the Third / Fourth Street corridor along Highland and Cleveland Avenues past Eighth Street, then Twelfth, then Fourteenth.
In 1910, the Winston board of education spent a few hundred dollars to build a pitiful little wood frame building hardly bigger than a house and opened it as the Woodland Colored Grade School. The following year, Robert Washington Brown was appointed principal. He took one look around and said “This won’t do.”
In 1914, Brown moved his students into a 2 1/2 story brick building that was heralded as the finest school facility for black children in North Carolina. It became the Woodland Grade School, with the old building adapted for the first graders. But nothing could keep pace with the population growth. By 1918, the lowest classroom at Woodland, designed for forty students, held over a hundred. So Brown went to work again. In 1919, a large addition, housing five additional classrooms, was added at the rear.
But no amount of building could keep up with the population growth, now being fueled by Camel cigarettes, which shortly after their introduction in 1912 became the number one selling cigarette in the world. All local schools were bursting at the seams. In 1921, the worst of the white schools was the Southside graded School, with 429 students in six classrooms, for an average of almost 72 students per classroom. But the league leader was Woodland, the second largest school in the system, which was trying to accommodate 1,023 students in just 12 classrooms, an average of 85 per classroom. So Brown went back to work and more additions were built.
Brown remained the principal of Woodland until his death in 1941. A few years later, the school was renamed the Robert Washington Brown Elementary School. The last addition was built in 1955, designed by the same architectural firm which had designed the magnificent 1914 building. In its final years, Brown became a middle school before closing in 1984.
Robert Washington Brown was born in Rockingham County, NC, in 1875, but early on moved to the to the town of Winston, where he became a member of the first graduating class of the Depot Street Colored School in 1894, receiving his diploma from Dr. Simon Green Atkins, the founder of what is now Winston-Salem State University.
In 1906, Brown joined forces with Dr. J.W. Jones and lawyer J.S. Fitts to found the Winston Mutual Life Insurance Company, which quickly became one of the preeminent black owned and operated businesses in the South. But Brown had a passion for education, so in 1911 took on a second job as teacher and principal at the Woodland Colored Graded School.
In the 1920s, he added a third career as a lay churchman, serving as president of the Western North Carolina Sunday School Convention and as an officer in the statewide North Carolina Sunday School Convention. He served as an officer of the Winston-Salem Negro Chamber of Commerce and a founder and president of the Winston-Salem Emancipation Association, which every year put on an elaborate celebration of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He also served as president of the Western North Carolina Fair Association which each year put on the Forsyth County Colored Fair, often eclipsing the local white fair in attendance.
At his death in 1941, he was still serving as principal of the Woodland School, as secretary-treasurer of the Winston Mutual Life Insurance company and was deeply involved in all his other endeavors. A building can burn, but that cannot erase the life behind it.