Edith Warren oral history interviews, August 8, 2020 and September 26, 2020

Part 1

Edith D. Warren

Alston Cobourn
East Carolina University

August 8th, 2020
Farmville, North Carolina

AC: Hi, my name is Alston Cobourn and I'm the University Archivist at East Carolina University. I'm here today with Edith Warren at her residence in Farmville, North Carolina in the morning and we are going to be doing an oral history interview today um with her. So to start off, Edith could you please tell us your name, your birth date, and where you were born?

EW: Thank you, my name is Edith Dowdy Warren and I was born in Edgecombe County - 1937, January the 29th. Born in the house that I grew up in, my parents were Maury Dowdy and Elizabeth Downes Dowdy. I have four siblings, there were four girls and a boy - the boy was right in the middle - and we were spread out enough so that all of the children, except the sister next to me, called me Mama just like they did our mother. I was a senior in high school at Bethel High School when my youngest sister was born - she was born in November before I was 17 in January so we were spread out and there are three of us still surviving.

AC: Okay, so.

[Interference with audio @ 01:58]

AC: Well, so my next question was going to be for you to share a little bit about your background, where you're from, where you went to school, and you've done some of that. Is there anything else you'd want to say about it?

EW: Yes.

AC: Okay.

EW: I grew up on a farm - on a tobacco farm at Mayos Crossroads just north of Bethel. We worked hard when we had an opportunity to play, we played hard. The school where I went to elementary school - the Mayos School - that building is still standing. My granddaddy gave the land for the school and for the church that I grew up in, so the fact that he gave the land for that school tells us from the get go how important education was for our family. I went to grades one through seven at Mayos Crossroads. My first-grade teacher was an incredible lady, Katie Corbett Johnson, who is the mother of former Athletic Director Terry Holland's wife who was long time A.D. at ECU. I had an opportunity to reconnect with her in her 90s and on her 98th birthday, I awarded her on behalf of Governor Mike Easley, The Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

AC: Oh, wonderful.

EW: I was close enough to school so that I could walk to school and also one of my teachers, in fact my second grade teacher, lived on the next farm down from me and sometimes I rode to school on the back of her bicycle. We were a small school - only 75 students but it was an opportunity for growth and opportunity for leadership even at that level and I was the valedictorian you may say or the most outstanding student in the seventh grade class and I received a trophy for that honor and it is sitting on my mantel right now um and I put it on the mantle so that my grandchildren would know that there was a standard that they needed to do the best that they could do. My parents, grandparents instilled in us at an early age the importance of doing your very best always whether it was in your schoolwork or whether it was helping with farm work or whatever it was that you should do your very best. And in those days, money was a precious commodity even as it is today - at report card time I would very quickly go find my granddaddy and show him my report card because if I had all A's it meant I'd get a dollar bill and that was a lot of money. And um if there was an idyllic time to grow up I think it was in the 1950s. I loved high school, I loved everything about it. We were a small school, we were not even big enough to have a football team, but we were big enough to have a competitive basketball team on the boy's side and my senior year the girls won the Pitt County Championship.

EW: I am probably one of the very few people around that can say they played basketball in Wright Auditorium and in Christenbury. My senior year Christenbury opened and Pitt County Schools always played their basketball tournaments on the ECU campus so that way I got to play basketball not only in Wright Auditorium, but in Christenbury Gym. High school - with us being a small school - you could participate in all of the things that you cared about and were interested in. So I sometimes said I was in everything except the FFA and at that time they didn't allow girls in the FFA, but I played basketball, I was in the Beta Club my senior year, I was editor of the high school annual, and editor of the school newspaper. And I still have copies of some of those newspapers that were run off on the mimeograph machine and um the annual that has almost come to pieces because the pages have been turned so many times but it - and I had wonderful teachers who were mentors and um I wanted to be a school teacher just like, Daisy Lee Latham, she inspired me so um - and we did not have much in the way of money, but we had - we did not lack for anything. We grew food, we had plenty of food. Mama sewed, we wore pretty clothes in high school, I sewed.

AC: Right.

EW: Worked part-time at Belks in Tarboro and I could buy a piece of material with my days earnings on Saturday of four dollars and have a new dress. We rode bicycles, we played baseball in the pasture, um and it was just a happy time and I guess because we were so young that we were happy but it was a good time and um my brothers and sisters - we were spread out, but we could still do things together. Church was an important part of our life. Um, 4-H club - in large groups, I oftentimes see an experience where a speaker would say, all those who went 4-H club stand up, all of you who were boy scouts or girl scouts, so you begin those leadership opportunities at those ages and you participate and you go for it and you believe that you can do things and learn to grab opportunities. And when I graduated from high school, that night after we went home from graduation I had not been accepted in a college at that point, um you did not apply as early as it's necessary to do in today's world. I was not sure how we were going to pay for college, I just believed that it would happen. When I graduated from high school, I was [unclear @ 11:55] salutatorian in 1954. I got a $75 Pitt County Alumni Scholarship - we were on the quarter system at that time, tuition for day students was $55.

AC: Perfect.

EW: So with that $75 scholarship that first year, I had. Could get your books if you were careful and buy used books for about $25, so I was off to the big city and to East Carolina College and what an adventure that was.

AC: Yeah, so I'm just curious were you in 4-H when you were in high school?

EW: Yes.

AC: Okay.

EW: I started in 4-H when I was in the fifth grade and I was in 4-H through high school. And the 4-H club that I was a part of was at Mayos Crossroads - which is in Edgecombe County, Bethel High School is in Pitt County - but we continued our 4-H group through high school and we would meet in someone's home.

AC: Okay.

EW: But it was a wonderful experience and 4-H camp and FHA camp were just such highlights.

AC: Future Homemakers of America.

EW: Yes, yes. And the first time I went to 4-H camp was at White Lake. I was in the sixth grade. I talked to Daddy about wanting to go to camp - I don't know how much camp cost maybe $20 something in that range - and Daddy's answer to me was if I wanted to go to camp, there was a barn full of corn I could shell the corn and he'd take it to the market and I could earn the money to go to camp. Sounded like a great deal to me, and I solicited my brother and sisters to help me shell the corn. And that experience at 4-H camp at White Lake just opened up a whole new world for me and the opportunity to do some different things with different groups. And so I went to 4-H camp some more and to FHA camp at that same location, and um it just really enhanced my growing up and opportunities to do things.

AC: So um, how and or why have you been in the different positions and roles that you've been in throughout your career? Um, you could talk about that generally or maybe there's specific positions or roles you want to talk more specifically - so how or why do you think you ended up in the roles you ended up in?

EW: Well I will do some general and some specific both. The opportunities that I had in 4-H Club and with Future Homemakers of America, participating in essay contests and debates, and all of those kinds of things. I entered an essay contest that was sponsored by Farm Bureau when I was in seventh grade and my mother encouraged me and my teacher encouraged me to do that and the title of that essay was: "Why my Mother Should be a Member of the Farm Bureau Women," and I wrote my essay and entered the contest and lo and behold, I won the contest for the county and I still have that original copy that my mother saved in her box of archives and I'm very proud of that. And after Billy and I were married - I met Billy officially - I knew who he was because he grew up in Robersonville when I was in Bethel which was next door. The first time I saw him I was sitting with a friend and it was an activity in the old Bethel Gym. And there was this guy on the basketball team for Robersonville and my friend said there goes Janie Ruth's new boyfriend don't you think he's cute? And I looked at him and I agree yes I think he's cute. Well, I did not really officially meet him until we were both day students at ECU in Joyner Library in that day they students went to Joyner Library to study during their break time. And I was in a carpool that you went when the first person had class and you left when the last one finished class and I kept seeing this guy and I thought he looks familiar and he thought I looked familiar. And so we started this conversation one day and as you might say the rest is history. I went back and finished up my degree after we had two children and day student tuition was still low. So on Billy's salary we squeezed out tuition money for me to go to school and I carpooled from Robersonville.

EW: I changed my major from English and social studies because of my experience with. I think that I would prefer working with young children and from the get go with my teaching, I felt that I should be a part of the professional organizations, go to meetings, go to workshops, do those kinds of things and so I just gradually worked into being a part of the activities around the classroom. And wanting to be the best that I could be. So from very early on I was visiting the General Assembly with teacher groups where we met with our legislators and I accepted leadership roles you know like being a committee chair, a district.

AC: Right.

EW: Officer. And I just gradually worked into that and then when um we moved to Farmville - Billy's work brought us to Farmville - he was a tobacconist with AC Mucking Company, most of the time he was a buyer and he traveled overseas, and most of his work overseas was involved with the leaf and setting up the blends and so forth. When we moved to Farmville, I started teaching first grade at Sam Bundy School here in town and I continued to participate in whatever kind of professional organizations were offered. I enjoyed my work in the classroom. I especially love to teach reading and to see the lights come on in a child's eyes when you know I got it, I got this thing. And it's just very exciting and rewarding. The principal that we had at that time John McKnight was offered a position at the central office of Pitt County Schools under Superintendent Alford. And he was going on a temporary position because this was grant funded and Mr. Alford asked me to take the principalship and I did and I ultimately um received the position permanently. I was the first full-time, woman principal with Pitt County Schools.

AC: I believe it.

EW: There had been other ladies who were principals in Greenville City but not in Pitt County Schools. So it was a wonderful opportunity and I was very appreciative of that opportunity - it was me and the guys when we went to principal's meeting - it was me and the guys and they told me from the get-go you got to carry your own books and open your own doors. They were very generous and very kind to me and we all work together seamlessly.

AC: That's great.

EW: When we had a meeting to go to, we all got in the car from our region and went. We went to conferences and I would laugh sometimes when the person at the podium would say - as the Pitt County group came in and there would be a sizable number because we were encouraged to participate in those things and - I would hear here comes Edith and her entourage from Pitt County. And how proud I was to be included in that group. Um I had opportunities to serve with the International Reading Association - I served on the State Board for that group and presented at workshops. I served for a long time on the State Board for Principals and Assistant Principals Association. I was long time secretary.

EW: Training in education, learning new ways to do things and it was just very exciting and you know just one step leads to another step and people learn to respect you to consult with you when they have questions and the - as exciting as it was to see the light in a child's eyes when they were learning to read, it was so exciting to see the growth of a young teacher as they explored their work and spread their wings and gain the confidence of a mature classroom teacher. Um so I had some just really wonderful experiences as a principal of 19 years at Sam Bundy School.

AC: That's a long time.

EW: And I was rewarded with students doing well, with teachers doing well. And a precious memento that the staff gave me - and it is a precious memento, I will show it to you before you leave.

AC: Okay

EW: They made a quilt for me with each staff member doing a cross-stitch square. And on the various squares would have something to do with education, the school, my family, even the pet dog - there is a square with the dogs on it. Um one of the teachers did a square that was a replica of the page from the very first pre-premier that I read in the first grade because she read same one. And um what a treasure, what treasure that is and so it - the opportunities of meeting people, being mentored by people who cared and who were in leadership like folks with the department of public instruction for North Carolina, um going to conferences and meeting writers.

AC: Yeah.

EW: Researchers, I was always amazed to have a conversation sitting at the table with a researcher or an author and you were just inspired to go on and do more. And when I retired from Sam Bundy School in 1993, it is hard to believe that was 27 years ago.

AC: Yeah.

EW: And I had no idea what doors would open for me after I retired.

AC: Yeah.

EW: I directed an after-school program that was a joint effort between Pitt County Schools, the United Way, and Public Housing - and these programs met in the public housing areas and in the case of Bethel, met in the elementary school. I did that for three years. I have always participated and been involved in the political arena. I was already married when - at the age of 21 - you could vote at that time. My daddy called me at 7:30 in the morning to tell me happy birthday and his next question was, have you registered to vote yet and I said, no sir but I'm going to do that right away. So I always was involved in um voting and being involved in the process. We talked about that at the supper table growing up, my daddy and granddaddy were um polling officials and um I knew that I was responsible for registering to vote and to vote. The first election that I was eligible to participate in was when President Kennedy was elected.

AC: Okay

EW: So he was my first presidential vote. And then after three years with the after-school program, I was asked to consider running for the Pitt County Board of Commissioners and I believed I could do that and so I threw my hat in the ring I had a primary, I had a runoff, and a general election. And I was elected the first woman to the Pitt County Board of Commissioners, that was in 1996. During the period of time that I served with the Pitt County Board of Commissioners was. Turbulent at times because during that period of time the discussion came about whether or not to transfer the Pitt County Hospital from a public institution to a private non-profit. There was a lot of emotion.

AC: I'm sure.

EW: A lot of emotion. It was a split vote and I voted to support the transfer and it carried and I felt very strongly that that was the right thing to do and I still believe that. I ride by that facility and I just smile because that was the opportunity that Pitt County - our regional hospital could become the wonderful medical center that it is today. And the um work with the medical school - the Brody School of Medicine - um, has just been incredible not only for eastern North Carolina but for all of North Carolina. And had we not made that move, that would not have been possible it would not have happened. So I am very proud of the part that I played in helping to make that happen and we had some really strong leadership on the Pitt County Board that led to that with um Mark Owens, and Kenneth Dews, and Charles Gaskins, and others - um it was exciting to see the fruition of that work at this point and little did I know, but it was just kind of a beginning in a way.

AC: Yeah.

EW: Because my next door neighbor, Linwood Mercer - right over here - was in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Prior to that, my neighbor two doors down, Walter Jones, Jr. had been in the General Assembly and then he went on to Congress. And some people talked to me about running for Linwood's seat - he was not going to run - so I did that. That year, Marian McLawhorn from Grifton and I were elected to the North Carolina General Assembly to the House of Representatives - two women from Pitt County - the first time Pitt County had women in the North Carolina General Assembly. And together I feel like we made a pretty strong team, and we bleed purple. We had some other constituents who bled purple too - not so many, but enough of us to make a difference. I was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly, Marian and I went in in January of 1999 and we hit the ground running. Those were not easy times as far as money was concerned, but we were successful and fought the good fight, we were involved in um influencing a bond referendum of over three billion - with a B - dollars. East Carolina was a good, strong recipient of those dollars. Um the first building that was completed was Science Technology building that the foundation and all of that had been laid and was covered over with grass waiting for the money to come to bring it up out of the ground - that was the first project that was completed. We worked very hard and we got a new Family Medical Center.

Part 2

Edith D. Warren

Alston Cobourn
East Carolina University

September 26th, 2020
Farmville, North Carolina

EW: .participate in those activities that were going to provide not only leadership at the time, but leadership throughout their lives. And I knew that I would go to college - we were sharecropper farmers lived on my granddaddy's farm and we were like everybody else in a farming community in the 1950s. We worked hard, we played hard, we didn't have much money but because East Carolina was located here in Pitt County I could be a day student. And that's how I started out and all the way through college I was a day student, I officially met my husband in the library - at Joyner Library and we got married young, had a young family, and we knew that I would go back and finish my degree - we just didn't know exactly when that time frame was going to be. And we had supper with some friends one Saturday night and this young man Matt Cherry was Billy's best friend growing up, and he and his wife were teachers in Williamston and Matt was one of those serious visionary people and he said to me, Edith you must finish your degree and you need to get it done now. This was in May - the next week Billy and I talked to his mother about keeping our little children while I went to school and she agreed. So then the community got busy behind me and there were carpooling opportunities for me to go to school and finish up my degree. I put - Billy and I had two little children at that time, Steve and Kathy, I put them in a little red wagon and pulled them down the street to Billy's mother's house. She kept the children for me while I went to school in the mornings and she did that until I finished my degree. A young man who was going to school working on his degree I knew had a full-time job in the afternoons - later on, I carpooled with him all the time, he would not let me pay him anything for gas because he said he had a job and his wife had a job. So it was a community process that got me through my degree and I could not have done it without the help of family and community. And then when I finished my degree Billy went back and was working on his degree and there are opportunities out there now for young people to get an education, they just have to be willing to make the commitment and to put skin in the game to make it happen.

EW: I was the first woman elected to the Pitt County Board of Commissioners. I was one of the first two women to be elected from Pitt County to the North Carolina General Assembly. Very soon after we went to the North Carolina House, we had a little group in the east: Representative Russell Tucker from Duplin county, Representative Joe Tolson from Edgecombe County, Representative Mary McLonghorn from Pitt County and me - that put together some supper events and we usually would have something like fried chicken, collards, pinto beans, corn, butter beans, corn bread, pork chops, ham - those kinds of good country vegetables and meats. And we would invite various legislators and other people that were involved in the law-making process in Raleigh and in a very informal setting you could find the Speaker of the House, the Democratic Leader, the Governor in a little corner discussing things. And governor Mike Easley, who was governor during most of my time serving in the House, called us the "Fried Chicken Caucus" and I am confident that through good food, good desserts, good relaxation, and conversation that we were able to get some things done. And it was a fun time we worked hard, but then when we got an opportunity like, to play at a Fried Chicken Caucus event, which we did fairly frequently - that was a lot of fun and we knew that we were also getting work done too and I'm just very proud of the things that we accomplished during that period of time even though we did not have plentiful money and we never do. But during that period of time is when we got the bond referendum passed that meant so much to eastern North Carolina and to ECU. We got a new Family Medical Center at ECU, we got a Heart Institute, we got new construction, and a dental school - as well as making a difference in other areas such as, I represented Martin County and we were able to do some economic development things there - and economic development that enhanced all of eastern North Carolina. So I'm just very proud of the opportunity that I had to serve and we need people in leadership, whether it is men or women, to be willing to step out and take the risk that are involved and participate - offer yourself for service, to serve on a community board, a town board, a county board, serving the General Assembly - and yes, there even be the governor. So I'm just very excited still of the opportunities that I had and that other women who mentored to me and helped move me along to be willing to step out and be willing to lend a hand and make the community, the state, the nation - a better place to be. And yes, even the world.

AC: Well thank you very much for letting us have this opportunity to hear, you know, about your amazing life and your story and um share some of your thoughts with us. We appreciate it.

EW: Well thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this, and the opportunity to share with others a little piece of what my life has been like and it has been a great journey and I'm very appreciative to my family, my children, and my husband, who was always at my side - Billy was very encouraging, he wanted me to participate in things that, perhaps other husbands might not have been so willing for their wives to do.

AC: Right.

EW: And even though I became a principal in 1974, there were not many women who were principals, especially those who were trained in the area where they were principal. It may be a former football coach, a former basketball coach - and I'm just very appreciative of the journey that I have had.

Edith Warren oral history interviews, August 8, 2020 and September 26, 2020
Oral history interviews with former member of the North Carolina General Assembly, Edith Warren, created as part of a 2020 Library Services and Technology Act Community Connections grant received by ECU Academic Library Services. Warren was Pitt County, North Carolina's first female principal and a state senator. She discusses her childhood and life in Eastern North Carolina, her education, her trailblazing career as a female educator and politician. Interviewer: Alston Cobourn.
August 08, 2020 - September 26, 2020
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oral histories video recordings
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East Carolina Manuscript Collection
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