Nansemond Training grads get together

Published 9:44 pm Saturday, February 26, 2011

Training School: The Nansemond County Training School class of 1953 met at the Preau’s At Station One Restaurant in Franklin on Friday to celebrate their 75th birthdays. The men have remained close over the years, meeting periodically to socialize and share their successes. This year, they also invited the women of the 1953 class.

Life was not easy for the students of the 1953 class of Nansemond County Training School, but through hard work, perseverance and vision, they have achieved great success.

“We’re all still upbeat. The future for us is just as bright as it’s ever been,” said Bill Copeland, a 1953 graduate of the school. He went on to earn his Master of Social Work degree and retire as an administrator in the New York City Human Resources Administration.

The 1953 male graduates of the Nansemond County Training School played together, went to school together, visited each other’s homes and churches and have supported each other over the years. They still meet periodically to socialize and discuss their successes, and they have remained close, even though some have moved away.

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On Friday, they met at the Preau’s At Station One restaurant in Franklin to celebrate their 75th birthdays, and this year they invited the ladies of the 1953 class.

Nansemond County Training School was built in 1924 to house the first high school for black students in Nansemond County. It also housed the primary grades.

The school was built through community donations and grants from the Rosenwald Fund, developed in the early 20th century to partially fund schools for black students in 15 states.

As blacks living in a farming community, the class faced certain challenges, said Bill Copeland.

On occasion, Copeland had to stay home for two weeks at a time during harvesting season, but Bill Copeland and longtime friend Enoch Copeland — who has served as a principal, vice mayor of Suffolk and Suffolk School Board member — count themselves lucky. They were able to attend school more often than some of their classmates.

“There were days when only four or five kids were in class,” Bill Copeland said.

Though both Copelands faced their share of challenges, they said they had fewer challenges than the children of sharecroppers.

“Sharecroppers didn’t have much,” Bill Copeland said. Some of the kids came to school with a biscuit and water for lunch, and landowners would insist that the kids stay home from school and help on the farm.

When it rained, everyone could go to school, he said.

“Some days, we prayed it would rain.”

The agricultural life wasn’t the only thing that impeded the children’s learning. They also confronted challenges because of their race.

“I’m ashamed to say it, but we accepted what appears now to be an inferior status without question,” Bill Copeland said.

But teachers, community members and parents had a vision for the students that perhaps they were too young to realize for themselves.

“They knew there had been changes since their childhood, and they saw the progression,” Bill Copeland said. “My parents wouldn’t have tolerated my not going to school.”

“We came from an environment that valued education,” Enoch Copeland said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to college to better myself. I took advantage of what was there.”

Baker went on to earn his bachelor’s degree; earn the rank of Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force; and retire after 20 years of service as a New York City police officer. “Hard work didn’t hurt anyone,” he said.

Thelma Picott Warder said that her mother was a single parent who worked at Planters Peanuts.

“Mom wasn’t home when we went to school,” Warder said. “But we made it.”

Warder said that she, too, had to stay home to work on the farm sometimes, but when she went back to school she did everything she could to get back on track.

Warder went on to graduate from the Dixie Hospital School of Nursing and begin her nursing career.

“There was a great emphasis on education,” she said. “You made it. You had to make it.”

Much of the class of 1953 went on to college and went into military service.

“I could stay on that farm, or go in the military,” said Max Jenkins, who continued his studies through his military service, achieving the rank of Sergeant 1st Class. “I thought about that mule and that farm, and I stayed in the Marine Corps.”

“We were aggressive-type guys,” said Enoch Copeland. “The good Lord made us that way for whatever reason.”