When schoolteacher Josephine Field Wilbor returned to her hometown of Little Compton in 1910, she found one room schoolhouses with outhouse lavatories, classrooms without heat or electricity, and students of all ages crammed into the same space. Educated at one of the nation’s first “normal” schools for teachers (now Rhode Island College), Wilbor made it her life mission to improve public education in Little Compton.
The problems Wilbor encountered ran deeper than upgrade of the town’s school buildings. Previous reformers like Sarah Brownell met resistance from residents reluctant to spend money on improving the schools or change the existing system, even for health reasons. When Brownell closed the Union School on the Common in 1891 because of uninhabitable conditions, parents demanded that it be reopened.
Long-time resident Carlton Brownell recalled the conditions of the district #2 schoolhouse in 1925: “I don’t remember when they first decided we shouldn’t drink out of the dipper in the bucket anymore. They provided paper cups and they were like little envelopes, they were ridiculous. So everyone would hold ‘em and put their whole hand right in the water. So there’s your great effort at sanitation. … It was primitive.”
Increasing numbers of students also placed strain on the system. After dropping below one-thousand residents in the 1880s, Little Compton’s population, fed by Azorean and Portuguese immigrants, boomed by the time Wilbor returned to town. The cramped, run-down, and unsanitary schools were ill-equipped to provide a modern education to the town’s growing number of children.
After assuming her position as director of Union School, Wilbor campaigned to organize the schools by grade level, citing the difficulties of teaching a multitude of education levels in the same place. In response to teachers’ claims that it was difficult to teach and learn in non-graded, one-room schoolhouses, many residents echoed the sentiment, So what? Countless Little Compton children had gone through the same system and had made out just fine.
Future Little Compton school superintendent, Benjamin S. Tubman, summed up this sentiment in a 1928 article in the Providence Journal: “One never heard them extolling the superiority of their grandfather’s venerable oxcart over the family automobile as a means of traveling.”
Wilbor won a minor victory with partial grading of the schools, and from 1918 to 1921, Little Compton had its own high school on the second floor of town hall. In 1921, Wilbor ran for town treasurer and tax collector and became the first woman in Rhode Island to hold an elective position other than school committee member. Through these positions, she advocated for increased school spending.
But Wilbor had even bigger fish to fry: a modern central school building for all grade levels. She rallied the support of the school committee and the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education. A heated battle ensued between education reformers and residents who claimed a new school would break the town.
In the midst of this battle, at the age of 48, Josephine Wilbor succumbed to pneumonia, her strength broken under the pressure of her work, according to her obituary. The fight for education reform did not end with Wilbor’s death. Buoyed by increasing support from Little Compton residents, construction began in 1928 on the Common, and doors opened to students in fall of 1929.
In a salute to Wilbor’s tireless dedication, officials named the new facility Josephine F. Wilbur School. Although Wilbor’s name was apparently misspelled, her school continues to serve the educational needs of Little Compton’s children.