This is part 4 of a five-part series documenting the history of the Winton Triangle community and the C.S. Brown School. It’s a story about the struggles that befell a pioneering community and the values that survive all these centuries later to sustain hope for the future. Read the rest of the series here.
Marcus Lewter, Caitlin Saunders, and Kenton Valentine grew up together in Ahoskie and Winton. They remember a childhood filled with playing games at the rec center, gathering for hangouts at their pastor’s house, or just messing around in the park.
As 17-year-olds now, they don’t see much for them in the area. There isn’t much to do for hanging out, they say, and there are few inspiring career opportunities.
“It’s boring here,” Marcus says. “You get sick of staring at the sidewalk and asphalt. If you look for trouble, it’ll find you.”
The trio wanted something more. They would talk about it often in middle school. That’s why they all applied to C.S. Brown High School STEM, a school the kids simply call STEM – which had survived years of minimal use to become one of the highest-performing schools in the district.
“We all wanted to do something big,” Marcus said. “I would say the hunger was there. We knew we didn’t want to be average, and being average wasn’t a thing at STEM. You come here, you’re supposed to make good grades. You’re supposed to do work.”
What they didn’t realize is they’d do more than homework, study, and collect good grades. They would meet Daphne Lee, and she would introduce them to the world of business.
“We’re not just providing kids with an education,” the school’s principal, Bobbie Jones, said. “There’s a great history of molding young, Black leaders in this community. And this school is a part of that legacy.”
The making of a teacher, and later a program of entrepreneurship
Much like her principal, Bobbie Jones, Lee never intended to get into education. She ended up at C.S. Brown almost on a whim.
She was working at Hertford County’s Office of Aging, a modest building across a small parking lot from the school. Lee loved her job, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t in the right place. It was close — just not quite right.
“What’s the plan, God?” she recalled asking. “Where do you want me? How are you going to situate me?”
She had no idea how close she was. A friend called out of the blue and asked her to interview to teach business at the high school next door.
A former cashier at the local Walmart who worked her way up to manager and started her own catering business, Lee figured she had much knowledge to impart. So she took the leap.
In hindsight, perhaps she was always meant to teach.
She remembers that when she was in elementary school, a little white boy told her she could never cut her hair. Black girls, the boy said, couldn’t cut their hair. Her teacher overheard and watched how Lee would handle it.
Lee, who had Shirley Temple curls, grabbed a pair of scissors and cut her hair.
“I’ll never forget this little boy, and I remember his name,” she said. “I’ll never forget it because I tell the story to my children all the time.”
It seems she was a hands-on instructor from the very beginning. When she interviewed for the job at C.S. Brown, the only question she had was whether she could get creative in the new position.
“That’s exactly what was needed,” Jones said.
One of the first things she did was cater a lunch for her students. She added some ambience to create the feeling of a nice venue, and the food was good. They gobbled it up. At the end, she gave them a bill.
“I showed them how much I spent and what all I had to do,” she said. “And I showed them what they would have to pay. And so I showed them how I make a profit.”
To make the experience more hands-on for the kids, she started teaching something called Virtual Enterprises, or VE. Virtual Enterprises International offers business programs where students start their own virtual businesses, sell virtual goods and services to other VE classes throughout the nation, and compete against one another at trade shows and a national summit.
“I finally started putting pieces together that, you know, I can really help these children become entrepreneurs,” she said. “And that was in my heart to do. I didn’t know that I had that gift to actually do it in a creative way. And then Virtual Enterprise just opened the door for us to do it.”
Winton and the surrounding towns that formed the Winton Triangle don’t look the same as when they were founded, when free people of color played a significant role in their social development and economic growth.1
But through her business classes and VE, Lee is reaching back for that founding value of self-determination.
The second VE class Lee taught had five students. Not all of them had taken her other business courses, so they were playing catchup at times. Still, they competed at a trade show and made an impression.
“One lady from VE, she saw us and she watched us the whole time,” Lee said. “I didn’t know who she was, but I just know she was watching us. And when they presented and they were just so grateful and thankful, and they did so well, [it] impressed her so much.”
The VE representative went back to New York and told the VE board about these kids from C.S. Brown in Winton, North Carolina. Most VE programs field large teams. A lot of them get two years of VE classes. But C.S. Brown could only afford to buy the first-year program.
They were underdogs, but they didn’t behave like it.
“She could have forgotten about us, but she didn’t,” Lee said.
VE gave the C.S. Brown team an all-expenses-paid trip to New York, site of the national summit and competition. In fact, starting two years ago, VE established a scholarship inspired by the experience with C.S. Brown. It funds an all-expense paid trip to the national summit for one majority-minority program every year.
“We expose them to as much outside of these walls as possible,” Jones said. “Ms. Lee took those kids up to New York City, and they performed. They performed well against international students. So that made me so proud for our students. They go to New York; some of them have probably never been out of Hertford County. But they weren’t intimidated. They put into practice what we’ve taught them and what their parents have instilled in them — that we’re just as good as anybody else.”
Creating a culture of entrepreneurship
The kids who went to New York came back with amazing stories. They were written about in the papers, VE created a video about them, and the school held a celebration upon their return. Marcus, Caitlin, and Kenton, who were sophomores then, remember thinking to themselves it would be their turn next year.
“They would say, ‘We’re going to New York. We’re going to a gala.'” The smile on Lee’s face fades. “And then COVID happened.”
She was distraught that their chance evaporated. Their virtual business was the most promising of all her classes to date. The first year’s class earned a virtual profit of about $175,000. The five who went to New York posted $500,000 after the New York trip. Marcus, Caitlin, and Kenton’s team was already at $733,000 before New York.
“They would have hit $1 million,” she says. “They really could have won.”
But what they did instead may have inspired her even more. They each took what they learned in VE and started their own small businesses.
“My heart was so broken,” Lee said. “But through this pandemic, to see that they were able to still start their businesses — that helped me get through the emotional part.”
Caitlin started her business just before the pandemic hit, and since then she has boosted her marketing and is building a website. She sells clothing and personalized goods.
“She was one of the ones that would always come and ask what I needed help with,” Lee said. “If somebody was out, she would fill in. I could always count on her to step up and fill in the gaps.”
Caitlin gained experience in several areas across the business process, and her attention to detail shows up in the business she’s created. Hers is the most financially successful of any of Lee’s students.
“If it wasn’t for VE, I wouldn’t have my business,” she said. “It prepares you for what’s out there in the real world. We had to interview for positions. We went to trade shows; I mean, you got to see what running a business looks like and what all it takes.”
Kenton’s business was inspired through VE. One of his teammates was diagnosed with cancer, and Kenton made him a jean jacket to encourage him in his fight. The team loved the jacket and convinced him to make another to raffle off at one of the VE trade shows. He remembers a girl from another team spending all her virtual money at the C.S. Brown table just for a chance to win his jacket. That’s when he knew he could make some money with it.
Marcus’s business is getting off the ground now. He worked at a Sonic restaurant to save up and start buying vending machines. Now he does deals with local businesses to place his machines there.
“They don’t even question it, that they can be entrepreneurs,” Lee said. “They have that experience now. And I’m really proud of them.”
These three students don’t know much about the history of the Winton Triangle. But the values and beliefs the early settlers held are deeply embedded in their school, and through the school are embedding in its students. One of those is self-sufficiency. Another is the entrepreneurial spirit.
“That’s what we did, us three right here,” Marcus said. “We took it upon ourselves to be like, we can do something other than this. Be our own boss. I don’t want to work for you. I’m coming to buy your building, how about that? Get at me on that.
“And if we run that type of energy, we’ll see it. Like, toting this gun ain’t really even it. Selling that stuff ain’t really even it. Opening an LLC could be it. Saving up could be it.”
Giving back could be it, too. The school was built on a mission of service, and service has been a consistent message from its leaders throughout the decades.
In fact, when one of Winton’s own perished in World War II, the town gathered at C.S. Brown to honor him. Annie Walden Jones, one of the first graduates from C.S. Brown, delivered the eulogy for Lt. George Lee Jones, himself an honors graduate of the school.
“To the students of this school,” she said, “we beg you to try in every way to emulate the example Lieutenant Jones has left — a life of unselfishness and service to others.”2
With that, she spoke into existence another inheritance from Winton’s founders to the students walking the halls now.
It’s evident when you hear students’ dreams of giving back to the Winton and Ahoskie communities if they make it in business. It’s evident, too, in teacher relationships with the students — built on a whole child approach that models this message of service.
Part 5. Knowing the child, the whole child, is how C.S. Brown reaches kids to teach them.