Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Eighth Grade Graduate! Or Graduates?

A few weeks I was doing my usual genealogical trawling of the interwebs when I came across this gem through Google Newspaper Archives:

Published the week of June 27, 1931 in the Afro-American, a black-owned newspaper that covered stories and events from across the U.S, this article discusses the 8th grade graduation ceremony for the Grant Street School in Salem, New Jersey. And guess who was mentioned? Both Bertha Elizabeth and Eleanor Frances Kilson!

Wait, what? Bertha and Eleanor were born 2 and a half years apart - Eleanor in 1915 and Bertha in 1918 - so why were they in the 8th grade together? And when Bertha appears in the yearbook with the Class of 1936, Eleanor is not listed (nor could I find her in other years, though she is definitely alive). Was Eleanor left back for some reason? Or did she start school late? Or something else? I wish I knew!

While I don't have answers to those questions, I do have an answer to another : What did Bertha and Eleanor look like in 1931? Through an awesome twist of fate, when my Great-Grandmother Katherine Sheppard/Shepherd passed away, she had in her possession school photos of her Kilson cousins, photos that were passed down to my mother and that included pictures of both Bertha and Eleanor taken in...1931!

That's Bertha, who would have been 12 or 13, on the left and Eleanor, who would have been 15, on the right.

(Note: I actually think Eleanor looks much younger than 15 here, and that Bertha looks like she could be older, but I have both of their birth dates confirmed from multiple documents and I have other labeled pictures of each of them that confirm their identities.)

Now that you can picture them, here's an excerpt from the article:
The eighth grade promotion exercises of Grant Street School were held in the Salem High School Auditorium Tuesday evening, June 16.
The program included the invocation by the Rev. I. N. Holly; choruses, by the grades; essay, "The Influence of Woman," by Gladys Brown; oration, "The Power of Little Things," Alonzo Dunn.
The address, "Effectually Serving," was made by the Rev. D. H. Hargis, district superintendent of the M.E. Church, Wilmington, Del., and the awarding certificates and prizes by Wm. C. Anderson, principal. Fifteen pupils received attendance certificates. Catherine Dobyns received a prize for the highest average scholastic, and conduct standing in English, history, geography, arithmetic and spelling. The prize, $5 in gold, was awarded by the Colored Women's Club of Salem.
The ribbons for best made graduation dresses were: first prize, Thelma Rose Fielder; second prize, Catherine Dobyns; third prize, Lottie Bidgle Moore. The presentation of eighth grade certificates was made by A.J. Dohner. The benediction was pronounced by the Rev. G. H. Crayton

This is followed by a list of all the graduates, including our young Kilson ladies. How interesting to get a glimpse into graduation day for our two Kilson sisters! Just like today, students were awarded for their scholastic achievements and the audience was gifted with philosophical speeches full of reflection. On the other hand, here girls were awarded for best made dress, and - unlike the public school graduations I've been to - clergy clearly played a prominent role! It was a different time indeed.

Can you imagine Eleanor and Bertha sitting up on stage, fidgeting when the speeches got too long, wondering if they were going to get a prize, maybe making faces at their parents and brothers (18 and 19) in the audience? 

And what was it like to attend the Grant Street School? Actually, blogger Peter Genovese wrote an interesting story about segregation in New Jersey schools, that specifically mentions Grant Street. Even more, it includes a picture of students in front of the building in 1922! That's doubly cool because it's quite likely either Carl, Samuel or both of them were in that school at that time - Samuel graduated Salem High School in 1933 at age 19 and Carl was a year older than him. In 1922, they would have been 8 and 9. A Kilson might be in that picture! I can't say for sure, though.

In any case, congrats to the Grant Street School Class of 1931, especially Bertha and Eleanor Kilson!

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