Graduates recall Southwestern

Published 11:34 pm Thursday, June 12, 2014

Southwestern Elementary School students perform “So Long, Farewell” in the style of “The Sound of Music” during Wednesday’s ceremony at the school. The line about tasting champagne was cleverly edited out.

Southwestern Elementary School students perform “So Long, Farewell” in the style of “The Sound of Music” during Wednesday’s ceremony at the school. The line about tasting champagne was cleverly edited out.

More than 200 people turned out to Southwestern Elementary School on Wednesday to bid farewell to the school that will send off its last students today.

The school was open for tours and a meet-and-greet. The official program included special music and a “roll call” of graduating classes from 1931 through 1970, when it ceased operation as a high school.

Dozens of alumni stood and waved their panther paws — a nod to the former mascot — when their class year was called. Those who attended during the school’s years as an intermediate, then middle, then elementary school also stood when their decade was called.

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“This is not the end,” said Delegate Algie T. Howell Jr., whose 90th district represents parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. “This is the beginning.”

Ruby Walden, right, class of 1938, was the oldest graduate present at Wednesday’s farewell ceremony. She is joined by alumna Arminta Rawls, class of 1954.

Ruby Walden, right, class of 1938, was the oldest graduate present at Wednesday’s farewell ceremony. She is joined by alumna Arminta Rawls, class of 1954.

Howell, an alumnus of Nansemond County Training School, said that despite the segregation of the time, “We still received one of the best educations one could get in the United States of America.”

If it were not so, the school could not have produced doctors, lawyers and state delegates, he noted.

Ruby Walden, who graduated in 1938, was the eldest graduate present for the ceremony. She said the night contained mixed emotions for her, particularly since she felt the history of the school read aloud during the ceremony glossed over the hardships of the segregation years.

“We can’t erase history,” she said. “We had to fight for equal rights.”

Education began on the site in 1924, when the Nansemond County Training School for black students was built using money from Sears, Roebuck and Co. leader Julius Rosenwald, who provided seed money that funded the construction of schools for black students throughout the rural South.

In 1956, a new building was constructed, and the name was changed in 1964 to Southwestern High School.

In 1970, Southwestern graduated its last senior class in the spring. Students were transferred to Forest Glen and John F. Kennedy high schools, and the school began housing grades four through seven in the fall. In 1979, it became a middle school, and then became an elementary school in 1990.

Col. Wardell Baker, president of the Nansemond County Training School Heritage Center, was in the first graduating class in 1956. Since the state added the 12th grade the following year, there was no graduating class in ’57 — which, Baker joked, was due to his class’s performance, though he wasn’t sure whether his class set the bar too high or too low.

He said the organization hopes to partner with the city to turn the former school building next to the current school into a museum and community center.

“The alumni association worked many years to get the old school building placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places,” he said. “We embrace our heritage.”

J. Harold Faulk, president of the Nansemond County Training School/Southwestern High School Alumni Association, said the name of the new school where students from the area will attend is appropriate.

“Pioneers started this school, and now we’re going to Pioneer Elementary School,” he said. He is part of three generations of graduates, as his mother and son also attended.

“We will have a new beginning at Pioneer Elementary School,” School Board representative Enoch Copeland said.

School Board Chairman Michael Debranski and Superintendent Deran Whitney both were former administrators at the school. Whitney recalled being surprised at how rural the community was and discovering the school did not have air-conditioning at the time.

“I was fortunate to begin my administrative experience here at Southwestern,” he said. “I can’t help but think about the many students and teachers who have stood where you are today.”

Current Principal Christopher Phillips said the school provided many happy memories.

“We do not leave behind the legacy of Southwestern,” he said. “It continues through your children, your grandchildren and the community support.”