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Ada Jenkins: A Very Strong Force

by | Dec 22, 2017 | Davidson History

Ada Jenkins as a young woman. (Photo courtesy of the Davidson College Archives)

Ada Mitcham, the daughter of Alfred and Elizabeth Mitcham, was born in Conway County, Arkansas on March 15, 1882. She attended college at Clark University in Atlanta, where she met Albert G. Jenkins, a student at nearby Gammon Theological Seminary. Ada and Albert were married shortly after her graduation from Clark in 1907, and left almost immediately to serve as missionaries at the Methodist mission in Monrovia, Liberia.

They were back in the United States by April 1908, when their son Pliny was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. By the time their daughter, Portia, was born in June 1909, they were living in Hickory, North Carolina. They were still in Hickory in 1910, but by 1920 they were living in New Orleans.

Sometime during the 1920s, they moved back to North Carolina, where Albert became pastor of the Simpson Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church on South Graham Street in Charlotte.  Around 1927, Ada began teaching at the Davidson Colored School in nearby Davidson. In 1930, she and Albert and the children were living on South Graham Street in Charlotte. Albert died in Charlotte in August of that year.

At some point after Albert’s death, Ada Jenkins moved to Davidson. By 1935 the three-room wooden “colored” school where she taught was in terrible condition. Windows were cracked and broken, and the roof leaked. She and PTA president, Logan Houston, spearheaded a movement to build a new school, an effort enthusiastically endorsed by Davidson’s African American community. Their efforts included selling Brunswick stew, hot dogs, hamburgers, and locally-made ice cream. The PTA sponsored fish fries and fruit sales. Members of the community carried bricks from an old building at Davidson College and helped to lay the new stone foundation. The new school opened in the winter of 1938 and included six classrooms, a principal’s office, and a teacher’s restroom. While the old frame school had only offered classes through the eighth grade, the new Davidson Colored School included students from grades one through nine.

Ken Norton had fond words for Ada Jenkins, who taught seventh and eighth grade. He recalled her as “a wonderful person and a wonderful teacher.” However, she could be stern, “she didn’t like to spank, but if she spanked, you would forever remember it.” Logan Houston’s granddaughter, Brenda Tapia, noted “her strength and her determination and her commitment to the community,” calling her “a very strong force.”  Ada Jenkins died in 1945, and in 1955, the brick school was renamed the Ada Jenkins School in her honor.

Pliny and Portia followed in their parents’ footsteps. Pliny graduated from Johnson C. Smith University and Gammon Theological Seminary and eventually moved to California, where he served a number of congregations in the United Methodist Church. Portia became a teacher, and married John Crawford. The Ada Jenkins school closed when Mecklenburg County’s schools were fully integrated in 1965. After a number of years as a county kindergarten and then a recreation center, the school re-opened as the Ada Jenkins Center.

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history.  She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.

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