Oddie Cox’s time in West Virginia was short lived. In 1913, his grandmother Ellen, who had served the role of mother for Oddie and his siblings, died in Nathan’s Creek. She had been born a slave on Aras Cox’s farm in 1861 and had died half a mile away in the home of her husband on Nathan’s Creek School Road. Ellen’s husband, George, remarried Rosa Maxwell in 1918, moving out of the small home he had shared with Ellen. Around the same time, Oddie returned to this same small house, replacing George in the home in order to take care of his younger siblings.
Returning from an unrewarding life as a coal miner, 25 year old Oddie found a job more in line with his talents. He began tutoring children privately. Soon, he was working full time as a teacher. By 1918 he was working in Pine Swamp, teaching full time at one of Ashe County’s few all black schools.
Oddie was a natural educator, and, over the next twenty years, he would teach at every small black school in Ashe. During the same period, he made a move in his living arrangements as well. His great grandmother, Arene Cox, who had been born a slave in 1826 and lived her entire adult life on the farm purchased by Aras Cox from George Bower, had died sometime before 1910. In 1907, in a deed written by Aras Cox’s son-in-law Solomon, the old house occupied by Arene, which was quite likely the original slave quarters on Aras Cox’s farm, was sold to Arene for $50. In the deed, Solomon Cox had specified that the land go to Arene, then to her son Richmond. After that, the house “goes to Oddie and Girtrude Cox (or Reeves), Ellen Cox’s grandchildren.” Additionally, the deed promised that the descendents of Arene Cox “may live on the old place as long as they live, and have use of the garden and all the fruit they can eat.”
Sometime around 1930, Oddie moved out of the tiny home he had been living in with his brother and into the home he had inherited from Arene. It had been 65 years since the emancipation of all slaves in the United States, and Oddie Cox was moving back into the slave quarters inhabited by his great grandmother.
Several years after selling Arene and her descendants the small slave house, Solomon Cox died, and the large federal style home, which had overlooked the farm for 100 years, also found a new inhabitant. The house had originally been the home of George Bower; in 1852, Aras Cox had moved in. By 1870, Aras had relocated to Iowa, leaving the home to his son-in-law Solomon. Now the house was left to Solomon’s daughter, Ruth and her new husband, Alfred Burman (A.B.) Hurt.
Like Oddie Cox, A.B. Hurt was an educator. He had begun his career as a teacher before being promoted to principal at Nathan’s Creek; later, he became the superintendent of Ashe County schools. Like Oddie Cox, Hurt saw the lack of education as something especially problematic for Ashe County’s development. In a thesis written in 1929 he argued
“Every child in Ashe County, no matter in what part of the county he lives, should have as good a chance in as good a school as the economic wealth of the whole county is able to provide. It is unjust and unfair to penalize a boy or girl within the county and deny him educational opportunities because he happens to live in a weaker district. . . every boy and girl in the county should be provided with adequate educational opportunities. The answer as to how these opportunities may be provided appears to be found in the consolidation of the small ineffective schools into larger and better organized school centers.”
However, Hurt’s primary focus was on the education of Ashe County’s white population. In the course of his thesis, he extensively notes problems confronting the whites-only schools in Ashe and the need for their consolidation, but he makes little mention of the abysmal conditions confronting black schools. Because Ashe’s African-American population was small, and, since the Will Banks trial, in a state of steady decline, this population was an easy one to ignore. By 1945, there were 4 single room schools serving Ashe’s entire black population. To provide resources for all four of these segregated facilities, the county allocated $50 for the year. These small schools were staffed by teachers like Oddie Cox, who were unappreciated and underpaid. White teachers, teaching at all white schools, earned around $1,600 per year. At the same time, African American teachers earned $531.
Like A.B. Hurt, Oddie Cox had spent his life within the school system and knew something had to be done. The meager resources provided were unable to support a system of segregated black schools spread out across a 500 square mile county, a system which was educating less than 100 total students. In 1947, Oddie began clamoring for change; soon, with the support of Superintendent Hurt, Oddie led a push to consolidate and modernize the black school system. Oddie brought together leaders from the African-American communities around Ashe and convinced them to allow their students to attend school in a single, centralized building. Community leaders eventually agreed, and Will Reeves offered two acres of land just outside of Jefferson, in the community of Bristol, to construct the new school.
The partnership between Oddie Cox and A.B. Hurt was one that would have taken 19th century sociologists by surprise. When it was built in 1820, George Bower’s home had been a symbol for the wealth and esteem that was available to white landowners of the time. By contrast, the small dwelling built for Bower’s slaves was a symbol of the lack of power and resources available to African-Americans in the antebellum South. How notable that almost 75 years after the end of the Civil War, so much, yet so little had changed. Although the black schools were consolidated at Bristol, and the staff of the school would be made up of African-American administrators and educators, the two men largely responsible for the consolidation, Oddie Cox and A.B. Hurt, were quite literally still living in an antebellum arrangement. While Hurt inhabited the large home built by George Bower, 2,000 feet away Oddie Cox still struggled in the small home inhabited by his enslaved great-grandmother, still unable to find equal footing in a world built on inequality.
By all standards, Oddie Cox should have been able to elevate himself into a higher strata of society. He was educated at a time when only 7% of black residents of Ashe County had completed any education past elementary school. He was a professional, having served as a teacher at every black school in Ashe County. He was a beloved figure, working with both black and white leaders to help bring about change in Ashe. However, as his white counterparts were able to capitalize on their achievements, Oddie Cox continued to struggle.
In 1940, over 70 years after the passage of the 15th amendment, which enfranchised all male citizens of the United States, Cox was denied the right to register to vote when he applied. His meager salary was a fraction of his white counterparts, and Oddie donated the majority of it back to the woefully underfunded black schools where he taught, forcing him to live an existence much poorer than those of his neighbors. Oddie had learned at a young age that he was not considered equal to the whites that constituted over 90% of Ashe County’s population. He always sat in the top corner of the bleachers when attending local basketball games and always sat on the back pew when attending services at Nathan’s Creek Methodist Church, constantly aware of his assigned place in a racially divided world. Despite the staggering inequality that had defined his entire life, Oddie was never resentful or dissuaded that he could make a positive impact; in fact, given the limitations presented to him, the fact that he made the difference he did is nothing short of incredible.
About the time discussion about consolidating the black schools was beginning, Oddie was working to educate students of all races any way he could. He led regular camping trips over the summer months, taking boys, mostly white, on overnight excursions to teach skills of self-sufficiency and woodcraft. Boys clamored to be part of Oddie’s camping parties, but Cox never failed to seek permission from each parent before allowing would-be campers to join him. In the days before countywide sports leagues, he hosted get togethers at his small house in Nathan’s Creek, inviting local children to take part in basketball and baseball games he organized in his front yard. His positive impact changed the lives of people like future teacher Sam Shumate, who was inspired to seek a career in the Air Force after Oddie’s encouragement.
However, no group was more positively impacted by Cox’s determination than the black students who he spent his life serving. He had begun his career in education as a tutor, assisting students who were struggling. Even after he became a full time teacher, he still invited students to his home on weekends to work ahead or to seek assistance.
While serving as the lone teacher at the all black school in Creston, Oddie was well aware of his academic limitations, and he began taking summer classes at North Carolina A & T to improve his knowledge. Throughout his career, he took courses in every subject area he needed to teach the upcoming school year. In order to provide music for assemblies at Bristol, Cox took music lessons and learned the piano. Despite the hours of effort spent taking these college courses, Cox never accumulated enough credits in a single discipline to earn a degree. It was not until the year he died that he finally acquired enough credits for graduation after decades of taking classes.
Oddie’s dedication to the black school system was not confined to academics. After the consolidation of the schools at Bristol, Oddie took on the administrative responsibilities of a principal. The task of providing a quality education to his students was made especially difficult by the separate, but unequal, infrastructure provided to him. The newly constructed Bristol school was notably inferior to the white schools of the county. The building had been constructed by white students from Lansing High School. As a result, it suffered from leaks and a faulty furnace. It had no indoor plumbing: as late as the 1950s, students at Bristol school still used outhouses. Additionally, the academic offerings which were available to white students were non-existent at Bristol. Vocational courses, art courses, and sports teams were not available. Bristol did not even have the resources to purchase a typewriter, making the teaching of basic clerical skills an impossibility.
Despite the limitations imposed by the segregated school system, Oddie Cox worked diligently to help his students keep up with their white neighbors. He asked that the school be referred to as Bristol Central, a name which he believed removed the stigma of segregation and gave the school a more formal sound. In 1948, Oddie purchased an old panel truck and worked to convert it into a makeshift school bus, allowing him to pick up children from all of the black communities in Ashe. Oddie drove the bus himself to and from school. While students were in class with one of the four teachers who worked at Bristol, Oddie busied himself making their lunches. After school, he worked as janitor, cleaning the small four room building in preparation for school the next day. Jess Eller was the head of the county road crew and regularly visited all the schools in Ashe; he recalled that Bristol was the best kept school site in the county. Also, to allow school to be held in the winter, Oddie fashioned a hand made plow from wood and used a team of mules to clear the snow around the building. By 1960, Oddie was serving the black students at Bristol in every possible capacity: teacher, tutor, coach, musical director, cafeteria worker, janitor, bus driver, and principal.
In 1960, the segregated school system that had enshrined inequality around the South was beginning to come apart. The Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 had paved the way for all schools to become integrated. By 1961, large Southern universities like Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Arkansas had been desegregated. Beginning in 1955, public school systems around North Carolina also began integrating. Within a few years, the school at Bristol would finally be consolidated with the white schools in Ashe County. Oddie Cox’s dream of having an equal education opportunity available to all children of Ashe County would soon be a reality, but Oddie never lived to see it.
On the night of April 15th, 1960 a strange glow was seen in Nathan’s Creek. Residents at the time did not know what to make of the sight and set out to investigate. Ray Phipps left his home next door to Oddie’s house and went to see if everything was all right. He found Oddie’s small home burned. Oddie himself was found dead just inside the front window, his suitcases beside him. He had died of asphyxiation attempting to escape.
For almost 100 years, Oddie’s small house existed as a monument to the inequality inherent in slaveholding society. When his great-grandmother inhabited the house she was trapped in a system of forced labor, unable to move on or seek personal betterment within a system that kept her in ignorance and beholden to her owner. As Oddie’s mother and grandmother grew up in the house, they too were trapped, not by slavery, but by ignorance and deprivation, forced to live in a world tilted against them, unable to access education or opportunities for escape. At the time Oddie moved back into the house, he had vowed to find an escape, to create a world that would provide a sense of equality and opportunity to all residents of his small mountain community, equality and opportunities he had been denied his whole life. How ironic that this same house literally trapped him in his final moments, preventing his escape as an unstoppable fire consumed everything around him. But how fitting that in that final moment the house too was destroyed. The world Oddie left behind him was in no way perfect; perfect racial equality was then, and still is, unfulfilled. However, Oddie Cox helped create a foundation on which later progress would be built.
At Oddie’s funeral, the crowds were immense. Hundreds of residents of Ashe County, both black and white, turned out in huge numbers to testify to the impact made by Cox. Four ministers, black and white, conducted the ceremony. Six pallbearers, three white and three black, carried Oddie’s coffin to the grave at Cox’s Grove church cemetery where large crowds of mourners stood together. Up to that point, perhaps no gathering in Ashe County history had ever been so integrated.
When the schools of Ashe County finally combined white and black students into a desegregated system, the most remarkable thing about the transition was how unremarkable it was. News programs had shown footage from universities and high schools across the South in which violent mobs attempted to forcibly reject integration. In Ashe County, school integration was met with hardly any objection or protest. John Miller, who had taught for years at Bristol, and had replaced Oddie as principal, was confident that he would lose his job after the schools were consolidated. He was surprised to be offered a teaching position at Northwest Ashe High School and would spend the remainder of his career as an African American teacher instructing an all-white student body, something quite rare across the South at the time. Miller recalled that “the first 3 or 4 years at Northwest I didn’t hear a derogatory term at all…they just accepted me as a person” and that “integration went as smoothly in Ashe County as anywhere in the world.” The smoothness and openness of the integration process in Ashe County could have been because the black population was so small, or it could have been because the integration of Ashe Schools came in the mid-1960s, after many other schools and universities had already integrated. However, a more likely explanation is that a single man who had come before spent his life preparing Ashe County for a future he knew was coming. When recalling the integration of the schools, John Miller noted that “I don’t want to minimize the influence of Mr. Oddie Cox. He was well known throughout the county, and most people looked at Mr.Oddie as an individual, not necessarily as a black, and maybe when they went into the schools they anticipated the same thing.”
Throughout its history, Ashe County’s relationship with race has been complicated. Unlike many places in the South, Ashe’s local African-American population has always been small, never constituting even 10% of the overall population. However, during the antebellum period, wealthy landowners like George Bower and Aras Cox still relied on slave labor to enrich themselves, using the oppression of others to burnish their own reputations. During the Civil War, Ashe’s poor subsistence farmers took up arms, despite their objections to secession, and fought to preserve a system that stratified the races and classes of the South. During reconstruction, when freed slaves lived in homes that were literally next door to their former owners, equality was still denied them, and blacks were forced to rely on their own small communities for any sense of shared culture and opportunity. When Will Banks stood trial for murder, the county seemed genuinely torn as prominent white citizens argued for his innocence while ten black witnessesses testified against him. When A.B. Hurt walked out the front door of George Bower’s old estate home and conferred with Oddie Cox, still residing in his great-grandmother’s slave quarters, about the improvement of black and white education, they were embodying everything that made Ashe County’s race relations both strikingly unique from and depressingly similar to the relations seen all over the South. In fact, no individual in the history of the county so exemplified these complexities as Oddie Cox. His life was one of deprivation, hardship, prejudice, and hope. He sacrificed everything in his life to create a system he knew was possible. It is up to not only the residents of Ashe County but also the the residents of the United States to decide whether or not we have been worthy inheritors of his legacy.