‘How will we get there?’
By Ruby Walden
Editor’s note: This is the third 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.
In the early 1900’s, Negro parents, churches and communities spent many years working together providing land, buildings and their limited resources to make education available for their children. Education was being provided for white children by the county, but not for Negro children.
The many small school buildings that served Negro children over the years began to deteriorate, and some gradually were forced to close. With those closings, the first seven grades of education were all those students were able to get. When the Nansemond County Training School became available in 1924, there was no transportation provided for children. Students who enrolled there for eighth through 11th grade, which was high school then, had to walk or find other ways to get to school. Many students walked up to six miles or more each way daily, and those still farther away found relatives or friends to live with in order to attend school.
Students walking took short cuts, crossed over ditches, opened and closed gates, passed through people’s yards and at times ran from dogs or other animals. Four of us, while we walked past a wooded area, were shot by bird hunters. Today, I still carry two buckshots lodged in my body from that walk.
Parents asked for buses for years, but it fell on deaf ears as other things had. Messages were sent to parents by their children to send money to the school to buy supplies needed. The children of parents who did not respond to those requests with money suffered in many negative ways. Students trying to transfer to other schools experienced undue trouble trying to get their transcripts. Some transcripts were never provided to them or to the school.
A high school with no science department, no library, no home economics, limited faculty, curriculum and more than can be listed here existed. The high school building that had been made available was greatly appreciated, but the building alone did not make what was required to be a high school. The name Nansemond County Training School still begged questions as to why all the Rosenwald high schools for Negroes were named “training schools.”
Despite the lack of support from a school system and the leadership in charge, the parents had to continue to work to acquire the least of many needs. On about the fifth or sixth trip by committees to the school board asking for buses, they were told by the superintendent that the school system couldn’t afford to give buses to all the colored children, that it would go broke, and that buses would be a luxury. He went on to say that they did have two old condemned buses that could not be used for the white children anymore and if the Negro parents wanted to, they could buy them for $200 as is, or $300 if any work was done to them. The buses were so badly needed the parents purchased them. The superintendent then told the parents that the buses would have to be painted so they would not be mistaken for the white children’s buses.
The parents purchased those buses, paid drivers, operating expenses, maintenance, insurance and all other expenses for three school terms before the parents decided not to operate those buses another year. A committee went to Richmond to the State Board of Education to inform them of this decision. The state superintendent had a big ledger showing that the Nansemond County schools still owned those buses, and claimed the operating expenses, maintenance, drivers’ pay and other expenses for the same buses, the same three years the parents had paid these expenses.
This added more questions in the minds of the parents. Did the name “training school” have an unstated meaning and with it an unknown way of operating? What did this say about how records were kept, passed on to the state and how monies were appropriated as it related to schools for Negro children?
The fight continued…
Ruby Walden, a lifetime resident of Nansemond County and Suffolk, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.