NCCU Archives: “Mother McLaurin”

Bessie Eaton McLaurin papers -- unique documentation
Jun. 28, 2014 @ 01:32 AM

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, in total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

- Senator Robert F. Kennedy

This summer, two pivotal moments in the history of the United States will be recognized: the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that was signed into law on July 2, 1964, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary. Both events offer reflective moments, for many of the freedom fighters who were young then and are seniors now were active participants in the desegregation of several facilities including the Carolina Theatre, Woolworth lunch counter, restaurants, hotels, swimming pools and the Chamber of Commerce during “The Long Civil Rights Movement” in Durham, the state of North Carolina, and the nation.

One person who deserves particular attention is Bessie Eaton McLaurin, an educator, community leader, activist, churchwoman and iconoclast. She taught a generation of young civil rights activists that implementing social change and challenging the times was necessary to achieve full equality and freedom, just as Daisy Bates supported the Little Rock Nine, in Little Rock, Ark. McLaurin, Margaret H. Turner, Sadie S. Hughley and Evelyn W. McKissick each holds a venerated place in the hearts and minds of many early change agents.

Bessie Eaton McLaurin was born on Nov. 22, 1895, in the Gorman section of Durham County, one of eight children of the late Richard and Lavenia Goss Eaton. She later moved into the city of Durham that would remain her home for over 80 years.

She received her early education in the Durham County and City Schools and later attended the National Religious Training School. She graduated in the Class of 1919 and returned later to receive a bachelor of arts degree from North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in 1940 under the watchful eye of the school’s founder, James E. Shepard. She embarked on a career that spanned over 40 years at the Lyon Park School and the East End School, both in Durham. As a veteran educator, she was a strong advocate for freedom, justice and equality during the heady days of the civil rights movement.

“Mother McLaurin” was active in the civil rights movement in Durham and often opened her home to young activists who participated in the sit-ins and boycotts. She housed countless visiting civil rights leaders in her home at 1708 Fayetteville St. She was married to Charles H. McLaurin, owner of the McLaurin Funeral Home, who died in 1947.

She was active in church and worshiped at the St. Joseph’s A.M.E. Church where many of the activists gathered before marching to downtown Durham, and which transformed its sanctuary into a laboratory of training in civic responsibility and social activism.

“Mother McLaurin” received many awards and citations and served on numerous boards, including the Durham Civil Rights Reunion Committee, the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs of which early female member of, Women in Action for the Prevention of Violence and its Causes, Child and Parent Support Services, Meals on Wheels, Operation Breakthrough Tutorial Program, The West End Reunion Committee and the Women in the Forefront of Racial Justice.

As a result of her work to bring about equality and peace in her community, she was selected as one of 20 women in the United States to attend a conference of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Nyborg, Denmark, from Aug. 17 to Sept. 6, 1968.

On April 27, 1995, at the age of 99, this courageous and historical treasure died in Durham’s Duke University Medical Center.  She was widely recognized as a change agent and role model for all. She was survived by Eva Croom, Ethel George and Robert L. Perry.

Andre D. Vann is the N.C. Central University archivist, the James E. Shepard Memorial Library Archives, Records and History Center. The center housed in the James E. Shepard Memorial Library can be reached at 919-530-6254 or at