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Students recall that 'the African-American community took responsibility for educating its children'
When Carolynn Reid-Wallace was 8 years old she fell in love.
The French language she heard spoken by a couple visiting her home in Williamsburg was fascinating and beautiful. When she became a teenager, she wanted to learn it. But the school she attended at that time in the late 1950s, Bruton Heights School, did not offer it.
If Reid-Wallace had attended James Blair High School in Williamsburg she could have taken French. James Blair only accepted white students and she was not the right color.
"I determined that (Bruton Heights) really ought to have an opportunity to have French," Reid-Wallace recalled. "So I went to the principal Mr. Montague and he said we don't have those opportunities."
State and federal laws told Reid-Wallace that she and her classmates should settle for what was offered at their all-black school. But she wanted more, and so did her principal, D.J. Montague.
Lacking the funds available to neighboring white schools, Montague nonetheless found a teacher on his faculty who minored in French in college and was willing to teach it. The following school year, Reid-Wallace sat in her first French class.
"Here's a man who didn't have what the man across town had in terms of resources," Reid-Wallace said. Montague had to operate with less money, fewer supplies and facilities that were lacking compared to white schools.
Still, Montague and his staff inspired their young black students to think beyond the restrictions imposed on them. As a result, students like Reid-Wallace excelled at Bruton Heights. Now 61, Reid-Wallace went on to serve in the first Bush administration as Assistant Secretary in the Office of Post-Secondary Education. More recently, she was president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
At black schools in the Peninsula and throughout the South, educators like Montague were committed to helping their communities prosper, when newly freed men, women and children sought the knowledge long denied them by law. Despite operating on the outskirts of a society dominated by Jim Crow laws, these schools prospered through the support of the communities that considered them the anchors and centers of black life.
Before area localities began offering public education in the late 1800s, many black and white children didn't go to school, or if they did, it was only for a few years. Private schools, often operated by churches, were not uncommon. Although education in general often was considered a low priority among those who weren't wealthy, some whites saw no reason for blacks to receive much instruction at all. This attitude - strengthened by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling - became more apparent once black schools came under the authority of white school boards.
While schools benefited from the resources provided by their neighborhoods, they could not match those given to white schools by local, white-controlled governments. Black schools often functioned without gymnasiums, auditoriums, new textbooks, adequate lab space and occasionally indoor plumbing.
Often the inequities ran deeper. In a presentation to the Gloucester County school board in 1941, Robert S. Turner, a black doctor and community leader, noted that when the county public school system began taking over black schools, it sold the buildings without giving any money back to black residents who had contributed to construction and maintenance.
Standing in the community room of Bethel Baptist Church in Gloucester, Dorothy Cosby Cooke talked about Bethel School, the private school operated by the church she and previous generations of her family attended.
"There was a two-story building in what is our church cemetery right now. That was the first Bethel School. Later, they built another school that is down the road," she said. The church often took on the task of starting schools "because the African-American community took responsibility for educating its children."
Cooke, 63, graduated in 1958 from Thomas C. Walker School in Gloucester, which in time served black students in grades one through 12. Her husband attended the school's predecessor, Gloucester Training School, created in 1921 through the efforts of T.C. Walker, a black lawyer and community leader. Walker led a fund-raising drive to get the school built after being turned down by the white school board for money to educate black teens.
Before Southern states adhered to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, schools such as Bruton Heights, Thomas C. Walker; Carver and Huntington high schools in Newport News; Phenix and Union schools in Hampton; Booker T. Washington High School in Suffolk and Jackson High School in Surry were sources of pride and achievement for the black community.
The schools were not just for students. People from nearby neighborhoods, with or without children, came to cheer for sports teams or to support student activities. Adult organizations used the schools for meetings. Developed as part of a community center, the Bruton Heights complex included a public health clinic, library and space where people came to watch movies, since blacks were not welcome at the white-run movie house.
Arthur Keyes, 75, a retired Newport News teacher who attended Collis P. Huntington High School from 1945 to 1950, said it, "fostered educational as well as social and political activities."
The condition of the former George P. Phenix Training School building today speaks volumes about the care blacks in Hampton had for the building and those who went there. Built in 1931 by students at what was then known as Hampton Institute, the school was meant to train teachers on campus. The building maintains its original marble flooring, which hardly looks worn. An intricately carved fish fountain greets lobby visitors and a layer of brick laid into the stairs prevents warping. The school now houses various HU academic departments.
Community support - from contributing money for new buildings and educational materials to recognizing and respecting the important role of teachers and administrators - came freely and often at these schools, say former students and teachers.
Community care also extended to the teachers and administrators at black schools.
Former Williamsburg-James City County teacher Clemenza Braxton, 90, can still see the group of women who regularly walked down the dusty roads of New Kent County to Tunstall Elementary School in long dresses and straw hats, their baskets loaded with homemade pies, sandwiches, lemonade and fried chicken. It was 1937, and Braxton, in her first teaching job, was grateful for the food and goodwill from the Mother's Club, in part because there was no cafeteria, she said. Braxton attended Union Street School in Hampton and later taught Reid-Wallace at Bruton Heights.
The Mother's Club acted much like current-day parent-teacher groups, doing "anything that the teachers needed help with and providing things for the students that they didn't get otherwise," she said.
Many black schools in the region came into existence through partnerships between black communities and a grant program started by Julius Rosenwald, a white Northerner who became chief executive officer of Sears, Roebuck and Co. On the advice of black educator Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald contributed money from 1913 to 1932 toward the construction of what are known as Rosenwald Schools. The rest of the money for these schools came mainly from public funds and black residents. Of 4,977 Rosenwald Schools built in the South, 381 were in Virginia.
Teachers and principals at all-black schools took it upon themselves to be surrogate parents to the children they taught and supervised, recall former students. They were compassionate and patient, yet strict and often demanding. When students didn't do well or lacked something, teachers often went out of their way to find solutions.
Newport News School Board member Teddy Hicks can remember how teacher Marie L. Holland at Carver High School would pay for students who couldn't afford to have their eyes examined. Hicks, 69, graduated from Carver High in 1953 and later taught at the school, which was located in Warwick County, in 1961.
In addition to being taught by former state delegate Flora D. Crittenden, Hicks said another influential teacher was Leslie Garrett, a mentor to Hicks, who was raised by a single mother with a third-grade education.
Garrett "had all daughters, not sons. So he adopted me and a friend of mine," he said. "Everything that needed to be done around his house, we would do everything ... we did it because we loved him. We didn't do it for money."
Black educators took their responsibility for student success seriously and tried to make sure no student fell through the cracks.
As a student at Booker T. Washington High School in Suffolk in the early 1960s, Cliff Edwards said he fell victim to peer pressure that put him on the path to dropping out. In his senior year, his principal, James Peele, after looking at his grades, called him into his office.
"I felt like I wasn't going to college anyway, so I don't have to do better," said Edwards, who now works as printing supervisor for the Suffolk Public Schools. The principal asked Edwards, "why I wasn't doing my best and he expected me to do so from now on."
After talking to Peele, Edwards said he understood his point of view. Being a senior, the younger students were looking up to him to do the right thing. So he did.
"I started to straighten up after that and I ended up graduating," the 58-year-old Edwards said. "The teachers ... had the life experience to understand how important education was."
Teachers didn't just use their life experiences to educate students in regional black schools. Most of the teachers held at least a bachelor's degree. More than one former student who went onto teach in integrated schools said that was not the case for white teachers.
"For the most part the black teachers had their degrees," said former Gloucester County student Cooke, who taught in Williamsburg-James City County and Gloucester schools. "After the schools were integrated, it was pretty much common knowledge that the people in a position of hiring were not even going to entertain the thought of hiring a black without a degree."
Black schools were shelters of encouragement from the storm of racism. But students would occasionally feel prejudice, particularly when they saw the name of the local white school stamped in their textbooks. Or when they received used books with pages missing.
"Later on as the textbooks were rewritten and updated, we didn't get the things that were updated in the books," recalls former Newport News teacher Violet Thomas, 59, who attended Huntington High School from 1958 to 1963.
Black principals, particularly in rural areas, regularly asked white school boards for more funding for supplies and equipment. They also pushed for an expansion of course offerings and grade levels. Well into the 1950s, for example, the Gloucester Training School and Carver High School only went up to 11th grade.
Some black schools offered mainly vocational classes, as white school divisions often resisted requests for money to offer college preparatory work. The use of the words "training school" to describe some black schools appeased whites that wanted black instruction to be limited to industrial classes.
The larger society, by giving students inferior facilities and materials, tried to tell black students that they were not worthy, said Reid-Wallace.
But the educators at Bruton Heights showed her every day that, "'you are a person with every opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge and use them not only for your own good, but for the good of society.'"
While most former students would agree that integration opened the doors to educational opportunities previously unavailable to black students, many are sad that the close-knit culture found within black schools was dismantled in the process.
"Those of us that had excellent black high schools eliminated by virtue of integration, even to this day feel a sense of loss," said 1959 Huntington graduate James H. Williams Jr. who now teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It is probably the case that the academically average black student or the little rabble-rouser such as myself received better care at an all-black school like Huntington than at an integrated school."