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Education for Negroes in Nansemond County

By Ruby Walden

Editor’s note: This is the second 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.

During the month of February, I read with interest many articles relating to experiences Negroes had in an effort to get an education. It was so real to me that I felt compelled to give some highlights of the adventurous journey for Negroes in Nansemond County. Being born, reared, and having spent my entire 97 years of life here, I have had many varied experiences over the years trying to get an education that was available for white children, yet not available to Negro children.

The first seven grades of education for Negro children in Nansemond County were provided in, according to research done, 32 one- and two-room schools and four three- and four-room schools. Most of what these schools were provided with came from various community groups, church groups and parents of the children who attended them. Parents even had to give, lease or deed the building and land to the county before it was included in the system or a teacher was provided. Some deeds did have a protective clause stating once the property was not used for a school, it would revert to the original owner for the amount the county paid, if anything, for it.

My six siblings, other Negro children in walking distance, and I experienced our first seven grades in Silver Spring School, which consisted of two rooms and one teacher. This school was built on land my grandparents deeded to the county for $30, a deed with a protective clause. In most cases, however, the county took the buildings and land with nothing paid in return to the owners.

These schools served the Negro children through the seventh grade and, in most instances, was the end of their education, because there was no high school to even walk to. Parents went back and forth to the school board begging for supplies from chalk and erasers to chairs and desks for the students. The first seats in Silver Spring School were old, worn-out benches, put in a school for beginners through seventh grade to use. Early in the 1930s my father built desks for the Silver Spring School, which were utilized until the school closed. I think of the significant difference it made to have a desk to write on rather than having to write on your lap.

The first high school for “colored” children, as whites referred to Negroes at that time, was built in 1924. Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck & Company Store, sought out Booker T. Washington, also a philanthropist and president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, whom he admired, to help him coordinate contributions to build schools for Negro children in the southern Jim Crow states of the nation.

The meeting of these two men led to the construction of thousands of schools in Virginia and other Jim Crow states, which were recognized as the Rosenwald Schools in honor of Mr. Rosenwald. A small amount of money was invested to help build high schools for Negro students, and Nansemond County Training School was one of those schools. All Rosenwald high schools came with the name “Training School,” from which came the question: Why?

Many thought these buildings were complete, paid for and ready for students to walk in and have a seat. This was not true for the Nansemond County Training School. Rosenwald had invested a small amount, but the parents invested twice as much. The parents provided the first source of water, which was a huge barrel sitting high in the air on four tall poles. Even though this service was limited, it was expensive but had to be done.

Unfortunately, this high school began under an administration that was not concerned about advancing education for Negro children. Parents were proud of the building, but it was the beginning of unknown struggles ahead, and a continuation of what they had experienced getting to that point.

 

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