As part of ongoing activities associated with the Boone 150 celebrations in 2022, marking the 150th anniversary of Boone’s official incorporation as a town on January 23, 1872, the Watauga County Historical Society (WCHS) has established the Watauga County Historical Society Hall of Fame. Throughout 2022, WCHS will name twelve individuals or groups—one each month—as members of the inaugural class of the WCHS Hall of Fame. For the month of November 2022, the WCHS is delighted to announce that Gertrude Tolbert Folk (1892-1974) has been named as the next inductee of this inaugural class of the WCHS Hall of Fame.
It is said that teaching is the profession that teaches all other professions. Although there is little information published about Gertrude Folk, we know from interviews in the community and the Junaluska: Oral Histories of a Black Appalachian Community book that people remember more than just a schoolteacher when they think of Gertrude Folk. They remember a woman who was involved in the community. A woman who gave piano lessons. An author of a number of obituaries. A well-dressed, stern woman. A well-mannered woman, always found at the community’s church.
Gertrude Tolbert Folk was perhaps most known to Watauga County as a teacher at the Watauga Consolidated School on Church Street. She was born to Jerry and Mary Tolbert in Jefferson City, Tennessee, in 1892. Gertrude was interviewed as part of the Black History Project conducted by Appalachian State University history professor Dr. Winston Kinsey in 1973, just a year before her death. According to her own oral history, her grandparents were enslaved, but not her parents. She attended the segregated high school, Nelson Merry School, and then two years of college at Carson Newman. After passing a verbal test, Gertrude started teaching at a school in Beaverdam, then later in Elizabethton, Jefferson City, and finally Cove Creek. Her story in Boone began in 1918, after hearing B. B. Dougherty speak at a conference searching for Black teachers to come to Watauga County.
During her first year teaching in Boone, the classroom was just a one-room, log building divided in half by a curtain. The school was the oldest Black school in Boone, which was torn and replaced with the WPA-funded Watauga Consolidated School in 1937. Gertrude and her sister, Anna, actually lived just in front of the earlier school building on Church Street for a time. Stern and outspoken, she fought to bring on a second teacher for the school in the 1930s when the Black schools in Boone, Beaverdam, and Cove Creek consolidated. At the time, Gertrude would have been the sole teacher for all 62 kindergarten through eighth grade students. (Can you imagine the outrage a class size of 62 would elicit in the present day?) Gertrude taught them all, every subject. Students remember her humming while she walked up and down the aisles. Thanks to Gertrude, the school did eventually get a second teacher, one of her former students, Frazier Horton.
Horton wasn’t the only future teacher to come from Gertrude’s classroom. There was also Margaret Neal, who went on to North Carolina A & T, then became a teacher in Detroit. Another three students went to college to be teachers in Philadelphia, along with Gertrude’s daughter, “Mackie.” Ottie Folk, one of Gertrude’s sons, passed the teacher’s exam, but ended up working at a music store. He quit teaching when students repeatedly came in with “paint [Blackface] and lips poked out,” looking to start trouble with Ottie to get him fired. Gertrude noted that Ottie heard a teacher at another school had expelled a student and was threatened when he didn’t let the student back into school. According to her, people came to the teacher’s house and beat and killed him. She indicated that was enough for him to choose a different profession.
Church was an important part of Gertrude’s life, and she was proud to have also taught two preachers. Although notedly Baptist, Gertrude attended Boone Methodist Episcopal Chapel after she married her husband in 1913. In her own words, there wasn’t a Baptist church in Boone for her at the time. Her husband Edward was a soldier during World War I. He worked as a cook at the Critcher Hotel on King Street, and then later at Carolina Pharmacy.
Beyond memories of her teaching in the classroom, people in the Junaluska community remember Gertrude as an impeccably dressed woman. She was always in a hat and gloves, with a matching purse. As relayed by Roberta Jackson, Lillian White remembered walking out of her house in a white dress with red trim. Upon meeting Gertrude on the road, both wearing the same dress, Gertrude immediately told her to go back in and change. And she did because people did what Gertrude told them to do, inside and outside the classroom.
Others remember the swing in Gertrude’s yard. Although it was much coveted, one was only allowed on it, or in the yard, by invitation. The same was true of her home, which was said to have been “well-kept and tidy, just as she was.” Her children remember working in the garden and the rows of canned vegetables in the basement of the house. A few of the neighborhood children recall that she would pay them five cents to go to the post office and get the mail for her, just enough to buy a soda.
By all accounts Gertrude was a powerful influence on generations of young people in the Junaluska community, who easily numbered in the hundreds, and thus an important figure in the history of Watauga County. Despite that, there is just a lone photograph and a scattering of mentions of her. Given racial tensions and segregation in the Boone community during her lifetime, it shouldn’t be surprising. It is disappointing, though. Who else did she teach? What other lives did she influence, and what did they go on to accomplish? What a legacy she left in just these few publications.
The WCHS is delighted to honor Gertrude Tolbert Folk for her important contributions to Boone and Watauga County’s social, educational, and cultural history.
The WCHS Hall of Fame honors individuals, either living or dead, who have made significant and lasting contributions to Watauga County’s history and/or literature, including those whose efforts have been essential to the preservation of Watauga County’s history and/or literature. Honorees need not have been residents of Watauga County. The WCHS is particularly interested in honoring individuals who meet the above criteria but who may have been overlooked in traditional accounts of Watauga County’s history and literature, including women and people of color. Selections for this inaugural class were made from nominations submitted by members of the Digital Watauga Project Committee (DWPC) of WCHS. Beginning in 2023, the WCHS will also consider nominations from members of the public, which in turn will be evaluated by the DWPC.
Courtesy of the Watauga County Historical Society.