• 34°

An introduction to Negro education

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of six opinion pieces by Ruby Walden about the educational system in Suffolk for African-American students. The series will be published on Sundays.

By Ruby Walden

I am aware that February, the month designated as Negro history month, has passed. However, the article I wrote in February was too long, and it was suggested that I break it up into a series, so I have attempted to do just that.

With stories recently written about experiences African-Americans have had trying to get an education, and the realization that many citizens who lived in Nansemond County (now the city of Suffolk) have no knowledge of the hardships suffered for generations, we would be remiss if at least a synopsis was not given of the story of the Negro’s path to education in Nansemond County. What follows is told based on my first-hand experience.

Parents who wanted better schools for their children were constantly involved in fights to get whatever was added to improve a very inadequate school. Those who have had the advantage of the accomplishments made by the forerunners should know from whence they came and what it took to get what they received then, and are now receiving. Many who fought trying to get an educational system that cared about education for Negro children as well as white children were deprived of their own education because of the injustices they received in return for their stands taken. Many of us who took a stand may have made greater contributions to society if we could have gotten a better education.

Negro parents and communities provided basically all means of education for their children from the first grade through the seventh grade of school. When the first high school for Negroes in Nansemond County was made available in 1924, the parents were hoping for some relief. This high school was provided, with the help of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington. However, instead of relief, it was the beginning of 42 years of great loyalty between a principal and the Nansemond County school system, a system that never volunteered to add, improve or provide the needs for the Negro schools.

To a certain extent, some of the things that took place were not too hard to figure out because the slavery mentality was still alive and invading every movement made to discourage education for Negroes. Promoting the progress of education for Negroes was not in the minds of the providers. I have heard many times that it is easier to take the people out of slavery than it is to take slavery out of the people. As a result, certain intentional handicaps were often hidden in the ways things were done, or responses were given to inquiries made. At times, even false statements were made just to avoid doing what was right.

I was one of five people appointed to a committee, and in an effort to sue the county school system for the equalization of schools in 1951, we did not think it to be an assignment that would last for the next 10 or more years. In addition to addressing problems on a regular basis, we became involved in filing a suit in court. As secretary of that committee, I kept records of the unending fight that lasted through the equalization and the integration of the public schools of Nansemond County. The path Negroes have had to follow to get an education has been a very long, hard and disproportionate journey. Many were further deprived, denied and punished when they spoke up for what they and other children rightfully deserved.

Information found by our attorneys, as a result of a study that was made of all the schools, revealed more than we even expected. In retrospect, our suit found all schools to be inadequate in many ways. The superintendent was never able to talk about things we were asking for without first referring to what the white schools did or did not have. It was as though it would be a sin to provide anything for Negro schools if the white schools did not have more or better.

Ruby Walden, a lifetime resident of Nansemond County and Suffolk, can be reached at wbyrdnst@aol.com.