Lessie Cleveland Culberson
Aunt Lessie married my maternal grandfather’s brother Robert Lee McKenzie and they raised two sons. Unlike numerous women of her generation, she worked outside the home—first as a school teacher in various elementary schools, and then as a principal. This week’s prompt is “Strong Woman” in recognition of Women’s History Month. Even though Lessie isn’t my blood kin, her strength of character made her a perfect choice.
Lessie Cleveland Culberson was born on 6 April 1892 in Roberdel, Richmond Co., North Carolina, the first of her siblings to be born there. Her father, John Wesley Culberson (1859-1934), moved to the county in 1890, taking the job as head of the carding and spinning departments at Roberdel Mill. Her mother, Sabina Jane Cook (1859-1932), bore at least seven children (six are known). They are:
- Donnie Lee Culberson (1881-1961)
- George Redin Cculberson (1885-1896)
- Mary Lillian Culberson (1889-1973)
- Lessie Cleveland Culberson (1892-1976)
- Ila Bango Culberson (1897-1983)
- Sophronia Jane Culberson (b. 1902)
Lessie graduated from Roberdel High School and went to college for her teacher training. Her first teaching job was at Bayview School in Wagram, Scotland, North Carolina. After a year she went back to Richmond county and taught for two years at Cordova Elementary and five years at Roberdel Elementary. It was during her years at Roberdel that she married and had children.
Lessie and Robert Lee McKenzie (1893-1949) married in Rockingham on 10 August 1914 by Rev. S.J. McConnell (a supply pastor for the Roberdel Circuit of the Methodist Church) at the parsonage. Robert was a wholesale grocer. They had two sons: Robert Benton “Ben” McKenzie (1915-1996) and John Culberson McKenzie (1917-1992).
In 1918 Lessie began teaching grades 4 and 5 at Rohanen. Named after three mills: Roberdel, Hannah Picket, and Entwistle. The school started as four rooms and kept growing until the mills finally chipped in and built a two-storey building. She became principal at Rohanen in 1922. In 1925, she was named principal at Cordova school and remained there for three years. In 1928 she taught second grade at PeeDee school for a year before returning, in 1929, to Rohanen where she was principal until she retired.
When depression hit, Lessie’s young family moved in with her parents and sister Jane. After her parents died, Jane continued to live in the house, and Robert found a new place for his family in Roberdel. Her sons went off to college in the 1930s, married in the 1940s, and the grandbabies started coming—six in all.
Robert died 9 January 1949. He had suffered a stroke after a sudden heart attack in December 1944, but within a few months was able to return to work. The second attack (angina pistoris) was fatal. The funeral was held at First Methodist Church in Rockingham. He’s buried in Eastside Cemetery.
Lessie devoted her time to the school, preparing it for accreditation. The elementary school was accredited in 1931. In January 1954, when the State Accreditation committee visited, Lessie didn’t have a regular secretary. Students took up that role, giving them work experience and close contact with the principal. One student relates: “We had some wonderful talks. I worked in the Office two hours a day when I was a senior to help her with the phones and filing and reports on attendance. She gave me a lot of responsibility and trusted me. I would never have let her down.”
She loved the students and inspired them with her actions. Here are some student memories:
“She drove us to the ball games and after wards when we stopped for food she would buy us hot chocolate and cheese crackers. She also liked Nehi orange drinks with cheese crackers, but when it was cold it would be hot chocolate. She never made it seem she did this because we did not have the money to buy for ourselves. She would say she wanted us to try it and to save our money because she wanted to treat us. Lots of times I did not have the money to buy it. I loved her more than any other teacher at Rohanen.”
“She had wanted to give out the diplomas to the first [graduating] class and she did. She made sure we had a beautiful and meaningful ceremony. Why she cared for us poor (financially) children, I will never know, but she did. She went to Washington, D. C. with the senior class of ’54 and walked up the stairs to the top of the Washington Monument—quite a feat for a 62-year-old lady. She was right there with us as we toured the sights of DC. I have a picture of the group in the Luray Caverns. She signed my year book, ‘Always do the best you can. Angels can do no more.’ I have repeated this many times. Above her picture she wrote, ‘I love you.’”
“I remember that a lot of students would mock her walk. She stuck way out in the front, and even further in the back.”
“She was principal of Rohanen for as long as I remembered and retired at the end of the year when the first high school class graduated in 1954. She was a wonderful lady and I appreciate a lot of things that she did for me. She loved the students there too.
“She was a really nice lady. I can remember her coming into the classroom every day while a first grader in the ‘little building.’”
“I remember being sad that she was no longer there.”
Lessie McKenzie retired after accreditation was granted to Rohanen; her Elementary Principal’s certificate did not allow her to be principal of a secondary school. She moved to Pilot Mountain to be near her son John. I remember sometime in the 1960s she made a visit to Rockingham and I met her. I don’t remember much about it (being a shy introvert has its disadvantages), but I do remember she took the time to talk with me.
Rohanen High School graduated it’s last class in 1972 (as did all the other county high schools). A consolidated county high school opened in the fall of 1972, joining all the high school students under one roof. The old high schools—Ellerbe, Hamlet, Rohanen, and Rockingham—became middle schools. Students still attend the school that Lessie McKenzie helped to build.
Aunt Lessie died in Pilot Mountain on 15 December 1976 at the age of 84. Cause of death was ventricular fibrillation due to an acute myocardial infarction after 30 years of heart disease. The funeral was held at First United Methodist Church in Pilot Mountain with burial in Rockingham at Eastside Cemetery.
Lessie Culberson McKenzie lived a long, fulfilling life, influencing the lives of her students in a positive way. I wish I had gotten to know her.