Florence Bowser’s legacy lives on through school

Published 10:42 pm Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Florence Bowser Elementary School is on the chopping block, but some relatives of its namesake are upset about the possible closure. The school holds a lot of history, they say.

It began with a one-room schoolhouse established for black students and evolved into what is known today as Florence Bowser Elementary School through the efforts of a noted educator by the same name.

“Florence Bowser goes way back,” said Vicki Wiggins-Pittman, a former Florence Bowser student and Nansemond Parkway Civic League president. “It afforded African-Americans the opportunity to get at least a formal education.”

After all its history, Florence Bowser is on the chopping block in the midst of budget cuts under consideration by Suffolk Public Schools, and Bowser’s family members are upset about the possible cuts.

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Wiggins-Pittman said her father, his siblings and her siblings all attended the school. The school is a big part of the history of many black families in Suffolk, she said.

“Florence Bowser has certainly been an inspiration and a gateway to many,” she said. “Starting up with African-Americans, it has also been a gateway to children of all races.”

Florence Brickhouse Bowser taught in the schoolhouse and sought a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund in the early 1900s. The Rosenwald Fund provided seed money for small, simple schools for black children in the rural south, eventually funding nine or 10 schools in the former Nansemond County and more than 5,000 schools in 15 states.

Family members of Florence Bowser still volunteer at the school, fulfilling her legacy of helping to educate children.

“That’s what she wanted for the children — to learn,” said Irma Speller, Florence Bowser’s oldest living granddaughter. “She always dedicated her life to the children. Each time I go, I’m impressed with the progress.”

“I’ve been to the school several times, and it seems to be well-run and a good school,” said Laurinda Cameron, Bowser’s great-granddaughter.

Bowser also helped organize the Sleepy Hole School Improvement League, Wiggins-Pittman said.

Cameron said she is upset that Suffolk Public Schools is considering closing the school.

The family members are not alone in their sentiments. They are joined by School Board vice-chair, Thelma Hinton.

“I think that the school serves the northern end,” Hinton said. “If we take that away from the northern end, pretty soon we will have to ask for another elementary school for that end. It needs to stay open.”

The former students and family members said they think the school should stay open because of its history.

“It was the first avenue to education for the students of Florence Bowser,” Wiggins-Pittman said. “I have very fond memories of Florence Bowser Elementary School.”

“I hope that the kids will continue to be able to attend the school and continue to learn,” Speller said. “She wanted the kids to learn. That was her dream.”