John Jefferson Smallwood was an extraordinary individual. By his own account, he was born a slave in Rich Square, North Carolina, and separated from his family in infancy. He claimed a Ph.D. degree, and he certainly had wide experience on the lecture circuit when he came to Surry County to build a school that would offer a high level of education to disadvantaged rural Black youths. The institute he founded in 1892 operated without public money for thirty-six years.
Dr. Smallwood's early education was hard won as he worked by day on a cotton plantation and studied on his own at night. He had a brilliant mind and an intense, charismatic personality which drove him to elude or surmount all obstacles. His prowess as a public speaker began to develop during his involvement in the temperance movement at Shaw University. Later he worked tirelessly on annual lecture tours to raise money for his school.
The school's major buildings were built in 1912, just before Dr. Smallwood
died. The most imposing structure was Lincoln Hall, a four-story brick
building appraised at $41,000 in 1912. More important to residents of the
Town of Claremont was an electric generating plant with street lights,
poles, transformers, and meters for houses in the town. The school's generator
supplied electricity to the town for years after its installation in 1912.
Mary E. C. Drew has written an excellent biography of Dr. Smallwood. She is related to him and has access to family records and information never before available to the public. For all the inside scoop, read Divine Will, Restless Heart !
For more information about Dr. Smallwood and his school, see Claremont Manor: A History.
The Surry County Historical Society now has a rare newspaper published by Dr. Smallwood's Temperance, Industrial and Collegiate Institute. You can buy a copy! For information, click HERE.
Below is a link to Smallwood pictures at University of Virginia Library Special Collections in the Jackson Davis collections. Click on the link below to search the Jackson Davis Database. On the search page, type in the keyword "smallwood." This will produce two 1915 photographs of Smallwood Institute, an early black private school at Claremont, Virginia. Click on the photos to enlarge the images. These buildings no longer exist. Click HERE.