Looking back and looking forward

Published 8:35 pm Monday, July 27, 2009

Alumni of the Nansemond County Training School came together Saturday to share a walk down memory lane.

“I’m very excited,” Mae Burke, a 1959 graduate of the school, said. Saturday was the 50th anniversary celebration for her class. Of the 22 graduates, 18 still are alive, and several were at the reunion.

The Nansemond County Training School, adjacent to the current Southwestern Elementary School, was the school for black students in the Holland area from 1924 to 1970. It was the first school for blacks in what was then Nansemond County.

Listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places, it was built partially with funds from Julius Rosenwald, who funded the construction of about 5,000 schools for blacks between 1917 and 1932.

“We’re very proud of the fact that it was a Rosenwald school,” Burke said.

Saturday’s evening at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Suffolk included dinner, dancing and speakers for about 70 alumni and former teachers of the school. There also was much talk about the planned rehabilitation of the building.

“We’re trying to do the same thing East Suffolk has done,” Burke said, referring to the former East Suffolk High School in the downtown area, another Rosenwald school.

Wardell G. Baker, an alumnus of the school, is head of the Nansemond County Training School Heritage Center Inc., an organization dedicated to seeking out funding to restore the building.

The organization hopes to turn the building into a parks and recreation facility, with three rooms set aside as a multi-purpose room, library and a “classroom museum,” which will demonstrate what the school was like for the hundreds of children who received an education there.

“It’s going pretty good,” Baker said. “A decision has to be made when we can start working on that building.”

The School Board and City Council would need to approve any work on the building, Baker said. The fact that the building is adjacent to and shares parking with the soon-to-be-abandoned Southwestern Elementary School presents more problems.

“They’re reluctant to let us do a lot, and we understand that,” Baker said.

Aside from talk of what to do with the building, however, the evening was used to reminisce about old friends and teachers, and recognize how far education has come since the days of segregation.

“It was difficult going to college,” recalled Jean Copeland, a 1958 graduate of the school. The curriculum in the black schools at that time was not as advanced as in the white schools, so black students often struggled to play catch-up at college.

“When we got to college, we really had to struggle,” Copeland said, recalling that Algebra 1 was the highest math course offered at NCTS.

However, Copeland attended Virginia Union University, a historically black school, so the professors there knew the dilemma of the students and put forth extra effort to help the students succeed.

“When we graduated, we could compete with anyone,” she said. In fact, after the schools integrated, Copeland was told she was a more useful teacher than most, because she could teach all aspects of social studies, such as government and civics, while many teachers specialized only in history.

“I could do it all,” she said. “The instructors made sure when you left there, you were qualified.”

Two former teachers at NCTS also were guests at the reunion.

“It’s good to be here and see all of them,” said Amanda R. Rodgers. “It just warms my heart, it really does.”

Rodgers began teaching English and social studies there in 1952 at the age of 19. She taught until 1958, taking a year off for her son’s birth, and then returned to teaching at East Suffolk High School. She retired in 1988.

Rodgers said the students and parents at NCTS were “the best.”

“That was one of the things that made teaching such a pleasure,” she said. “They would say, ‘If they misbehave, just let us know.’ But they never misbehaved.”

Fellow teacher William Hart, who taught industrial arts at the school from 1965 to 1971, called the reunion “an outstanding event.”

“It’s a good opportunity for friends and teachers to meet and fellowship with one another.”

To learn more about the Nansemond County Training School, visit www.nctshc.com.