The life of Dr. George Clayton Shaw testifies to the power of education. Born to slave parents in Louisburg on June 19, 1863, Shaw founded a Presbyterian church in Oxford and served for decades as the head of an important private school for African Americans there. His work reflected important religious and educational trends in the South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
According to personal reflections Shaw included in his John Chavis, 1763-1838: A Remarkable Negro Who Conducted a School in North Carolina for White Boys and Girls (Binghamton, N.Y.: G. C. Shaw, 1931), his mother had been owned by Anna Fuller, who lived on Main Street in Louisburg. Five of his mother’s six children were born “in the shadow of the Fuller home, and taught to read and write.” Mrs. Fuller’s care for the family endeared her to Shaw and his sister, Mrs. Lucy Dent, who also became a school teacher. Because of the relationship that developed among members of the Fuller and Shaw families, George Shaw believed “that there existed in the days of slavery, and still exist, strong ties of love and friendship that should be maintained and cultivated by the two races at whatever cost.”
After the Civil War, the Presbyterian Church sent missionaries to southern states to educate freedmen and to help them establish their own churches. George Shaw benefitted from the work of missionaries who came to Louisburg. Later, he attended Lincoln University, an institution for African American men that was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Shaw was graduated in 1886 and then enrolled in the Princeton Theological Seminary. Transferring the next year to another Presbyterian institution, Auburn Theological Seminary in Auburn, New York, Shaw continued his education. He earned a doctorate in 1890.
While he was a student at Auburn, Shaw gained support from one of his professors, Dr. Timothy Darling, and from Mrs. Mary Potter, who worked with the Board of Missions for Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church, to teach and preach to his people in North Carolina. In the summer of 1888 he moved to Oxford, where he was inspired to begin regular church services. With the support of the African American community and his northern benefactors, Shaw soon founded what became Timothy Darling Presbyterian Church.
At this time, public schools, especially for African Americans, left much to be desired. To address this problem, the Presbyterian Church between 1883 and 1903 founded private schools in Aberdeen, Henderson, Lumberton, and Mebane. In 1889, the church aided Shaw in founding what came to be known as the Mary Potter School in Oxford.
The following year, Shaw married Mary Elizabeth Lewis, a teacher from Penn Valley, Pennsylvania. For decades thereafter, the Shaws worked to enhance the impact of the new church and school. Dr. Shaw continued as pastor of Timothy Darling Presbyterian Church until his death in 1936. The school flourished as an important co-educational institution for African Americans. In addition to offering vocational education, it prepared students for college work and thus enabled the careers of many teachers, dentists, and doctors. Dr. Shaw retired as head of the Mary Potter School in 1933, when it merged with two other schools for African Americans, Albion Academy in Franklinton and Redstone Academy in Lumberton.
The public school system in Oxford took control of the school in the 1950s. According to Bruce Tyrone Grady in his dissertation about the Mary Potter School (Columbia University, 2002), at this time its academic standards exceeded those of its white counterpart, Oxford High School. This was a fitting legacy for a visionary educator who began life in a family of enslaved people.
Published in The Franklin Times on October 13, 2016.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wishes to thank Mark Pace of the Granville County Library System for his assistance. Additional references include Walter H. Conser and Robert J. Cain, Presbyterians in North Carolina: Race, Politics, and Religious Identity in Historical Perspective (2012) and Owena Hunter Davis, A History of Mary Potter School, Oxford, North Carolina (1944).