Virginians push to remember historically black high schools

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Vivian Monroe-Hester’s high school textbooks harbored hatred in their margins.

As a teenager at the all-black Booker T. Washington High School in segregated, 1960s-era Virginia, Monroe-Hester studied from used books passed along by white high schools. White students, knowing the texts’ final destination, scrawled their animus atop pictures, beneath paragraphs, between words.

“They would leave us messages that were not quite right,” said Monroe-Hester, 71, who still lives in her hometown of Norfolk. “Racial things. Pictures of body parts.”

But that’s not what she remembers — what she chooses to remember. Instead, Monroe-Hester recalls the joyful lunches, shared outside because the cafeteria was much too small; the 40-minute “forever” hike to school, worth it for a “world-class education”; the persistent teachers who persuaded her to attend college despite her self-doubt.

“It was the foundation that I believe brought my life together,” Monroe-Hester said. “More than me, Booker T. helped build the city (of Norfolk) — provided the labor force, the professionals, the lawyers — and that’s why it’s such important history.”

It’s also a history in danger of disappearing.

Across the state, and throughout the South, many historically African American schools are confronting possible extinction. Their disintegration dates to desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s, when some schools integrated and began accepting white students — but many more were converted to other uses or abandoned and left to languish, falling into disuse and disrepair.

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Aware of the threat, alumni are pushing to preserve and honor their alma maters. In recent years, Virginia has seen a steady drumbeat of applications led by former students for commemorative markers to adorn historically black schools, according to Randy Jones, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The department also has witnessed a rise in requests that formerly African American schools be added to state historical registers.

In Maryland, meanwhile, a group has banded together to campaign for a national historical park honoring Rosenwald Schools, a subset of African American schools that cropped up in the early 1900s, funded by (and named for) businessman Julius Rosenwald. The Rosenwalds — at their peak, totaling more than 5,000 buildings throughout the South — were largely dismantled during desegregation.

The movement to remember is vital, experts say, and long overdue.

“It’s crucial that the public understand the history of African American education in the first half of the 20th century,” said Jennifer Loux, who directs the historical marker program for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “Both because people need to understand the disparities between what black and white students received, and because they should know that there was always widespread activism and interest within the black community for improvements in education.”

Monroe-Hester, who worked with about 40 other alumni to install a historical marker at Booker T. Washington about a year ago, put it into personal terms.

“We need something to say we are here, and we’re not going away,” she said. “We refuse to let people forget.”

All-black schools proliferated in the South after the end of the Civil War, Loux said. At the time, emancipated African Americans were eager for education, she said, convinced it would allow them to concretize their newfound freedom.

Schools developed in different ways. Some stemmed from the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Others came courtesy of African American churches, which hosted classes and sometimes welcomed Northern missionaries as teachers. In 1870, Virginia adopted a constitution mandating public education, Loux said, which spurred state-funded construction of segregated schools.

Other schools arrived thanks to an unlikely partnership between a leading Jewish businessman and a prominent black educator.

In his lifetime, Julius Rosenwald amassed a fortune worth more than $1 billion in today’s money through his part-ownership of Sears, Roebuck and Co. He was searching for a way to improve life for African Americans in the early 1900s when a friend introduced him to Booker T. Washington, who had founded the Tuskegee Institute more than a decade earlier.

The two hit it off — and decided to collaborate.

The enlightening legacy of the Rosenwald schools

With Rosenwald providing the funds and Washington the expertise, they forged a program to educate the next generation of African Americans. Between the 1910s and the 1930s, the men built more than 5,000 schools and associated buildings — such as homes for teachers or woodworking sheds for shop class — across 15 Southern states. Virginia received more than 350.

The method for funding schools was highly specific, designed to ensure community buy-in: Rosenwald donated a third of the money, a third came from the local school board and a third hailed from African American parents. Schools were built to exacting specifications, such as ­extra-large windows and two sanitary toilets.

By the 1930s, 1 in every 3 black children in the South attended a Rosenwald School. Graduates include poet and activist Maya Angelou, and civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.).

“It was a really great education,” Loux said. “In addition to that, these schools became so central to the community as a whole: centers for athletics, arts, performances, all kinds of social activities.”

All-black schools of all kinds soon transformed into more than sites of instruction.

Jane Jiggetts Baskerville, a 1961 graduate of the all-black George Washington Carver High School in Chesterfield County, remembers her alma mater hosting events including music festivals, Honor Society gatherings and basketball tournaments. As the county’s only public high school for African Americans for roughly two decades, Carver “was the one place that brought the entire community together,” she said.

“The teachers at Carver never allowed us to focus on being segregated and not necessarily having things other schools had,” said Baskerville, 76. “Their sole focus was on moving forward, giving us the skills and knowledge and understanding that would move us forward in society. They had a way of showing us how to be the best we could be.”

When Carver shuttered in 1970 — one of the last steps in the county’s desegregation plan — the community lost something it never regained, Baskerville said. She obtained a historical marker for Carver last year, part of a bid to ensure Chesterfield’s youngest residents grow up with a sense of their heritage, of the ancestors who struggled for a good education.

“If you don’t know from whence you come,” Baskerville said, “then how are you going to know where you’re going?”

The question, Loux said, applies to the nation at large.

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In the latter half of the 20th century, desegregation — mandated by the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education — forced the closure of black schools everywhere. County school boards typically kept white schools open, Loux said, putting black students alongside white peers.

Sometimes, officials re-purposed African American high schools as integrated middle schools or as storage space. Other times, they left the schools to nature.

Dorothy Canter, a Bethesda resident who launched the campaign to establish a Rosenwald national park, had never heard of the schools until she watched a 2015 documentary about Rosenwald and Washington’s partnership.

Transfixed, she recruited friends and in 2017 founded the Julius Rosenwald & Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park Campaign, dedicated to building a park that would include sites in several states and a visitors center in Chicago. The group has asked Congress to require the National Park Service to undertake a study of Rosenwald Schools — a first step toward a park, Canter said.

“It’s an important story to remember,” she said. “It’s even more important now, with all the racism and anti-Semitism.”

In some ways, Monroe-Hester said, she feels lucky.

Booker T. Washington still operates as a high school. It’s one of a handful of formerly African American schools that survived integration and still serves as an institution of education.

Monroe-Hester sees fellow alumni almost daily. She watches their faces in the pews at church and reads their names in text messages on her phone. Her husband of 52 years is another reminder: They met at prom their senior year, when she donned a yellow dress and he talked too much.

But there are obstacles that continue today. Booker T. — which is more than 80 percent African American — still struggles to get first-rate equipment and adequate funding, Monroe-Hester said. She hopes a historical marker, by drawing attention to the school’s past, may bring an improved present.

“The marker gives us a little more stability, but we are still not out of the woods,” she said. “We are still asking for equality.”