A history lesson at school

Published 5:52 pm Thursday, October 17, 2019

There’s a story behind every name, and that includes the men and women who have become namesakes of different Suffolk Public Schools.

Florence Bowser Elementary School is named after the educator and community organizer who taught in Suffolk and elsewhere in Virginia for roughly half a century, going back to the late 1800s. Col. Fred Cherry Middle School honors the Suffolk native who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than seven years.

John Yeates, as in Suffolk’s John Yeates Middle School, is named after an Englishman who died in the 18th century. Yeates was a philanthropist who established two free schools in what is now North Suffolk. And of course, like many schools across the country, John F. Kennedy Middle School is named after the nation’s 35th president.

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These are people who made their mark on history and on the Suffolk community one way or another, and their statues, portraits and other markers still honor their work to this day.

Booker T. Washington Elementary School

Standing inside the lobby of Booker T. Washington Elementary School is a life-sized bronze statue of Booker T. Washington himself. The Booker T. Washington High School Alumni Association raised the $6,000 cost of the project, which was sculpted by Dr. Roderic Taylor in 1999.

Born in 1856, Washington was an educator, reformer and the first president and principal developer of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama — known today as Tuskegee University.

On each side of his statue in the elementary school are plaques that represent where he taught. One is for Tuskegee, and the other for the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute — now Hampton University — in Virginia, from which he graduated in 1875.

He founded the National Negro Business League and is considered to be the most influential spokesman for black Americans from 1895 until his death in 1915. The Booker T. Washington School in Suffolk opened in 1913 at 201 Lee St., two years before his death.

The original school served first through eighth grades before ninth grade was added in 1923. An adjacent building was constructed due to overcrowding, after which the high school opened in 1925 to teach sixth through 11th grades, and later 12th grade in 1949.

Its first high school graduation ceremonies were held in 1937 for 11th grade. The school was later relocated in 1953 to a newly built facility on Walnut Street due to increasing enrollment.

The school continued operations on Walnut Street until desegregation in 1969. It was renamed Booker T. Washington Elementary School, where it continues to serve pre-kindergarteners through fifth-graders.

A historical marker was placed at the school’s original location between Lee and Smith streets in 2016.

The high school alumni had to make do with books and other school supplies that were leftover from Suffolk’s white schools, yet they persevered and became some of the city’s most outstanding citizens.

Among these illustrious alumni are former Suffolk Councilman and Vice Mayor Ronald Hart, former Vice Mayor Moses Riddick, Army Col. Charles “Chuck” Whitehead Sr. and Dr. L.D. Britt, who was recently named the 2019 Suffolk First Citizen by the Suffolk and North Suffolk Rotary Clubs.

There’s also a plaque in honor of the school’s late, great basketball coach, Charles Christian.

“There are pictures on the walls of some of the people that have come through this school,” said Julia Bradley, historian for the Booker T. Washington High School Alumni Association and member of the class of 1956.

The names on the photographs and plaques, as well as the bronze statue inside Booker T. Washington Elementary School, are meant to show young students the heights that they, too, can achieve.

“The parents back then wanted to make sure that they set an example for their children, for someone to look up to, and that’s why our school was named Booker T. Washington,” Bradley said.

Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School

Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School is named after “a Suffolk native who dedicated his life to education,” according to the plaque beside his portrait inside the school. This portrait was commissioned and donated by the Alpha Iota Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, of which Benn was a member for more than 50 years.

Benn was born in 1927 and was a product of Suffolk Public Schools, according to Suffolk News-Herald reports. He graduated from East Suffolk High School in 1946, and after he later graduated from Bluefield State College in Bluefield, W.Va., he completed a military tour of duty in Korea.

He returned home and earned a master’s degree from Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. and completed additional graduate work at Old Dominion University.

Benn wore many hats while he served Suffolk Public Schools for 35 years. He taught and coached and served as athletic director, assistant principal and principal. He served as elementary supervisor, both coordinator and director of pupil personnel services and assistant superintendent.

His hard work culminated in 1986, when he was appointed superintendent. He was the first African-American superintendent in Suffolk Public Schools, according to the school’s website.

“Having been a native of Suffolk, and then being employed as a teacher and a principal and then a supervisor and so on up the chain of administrative positions in the school system, I feel that he had enough experience and empathy to provide the leadership that the position of superintendent required,” Elaine Brown Benn, his wife of 42 years, wrote in an email.

Benn held his superintendent post until he retired in 1988, “but education never left his blood” and he served as acting superintendent twice, both during “serious transition periods” of the school board, according to a 1997 Suffolk News-Herald report.

“During his tenure as superintendent and as acting superintendent, Benn brought financial stability to the board and continued to be known for his outstanding leadership ability,” according to the report. He also served on the Suffolk school board from 1992 to 1995, plus “countless” committees for the school system.

Benn was a devout Christian and a faithful member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for 40 years, where he served as senior warden. His nephew, Edward “Pete” Smith, described him in an email as sincere, caring, encouraging, manly and loving.

“A man who never allowed his somewhat small (stature to) diminish his big heart and perseverance in uplifting his fellow man,” Smith wrote. “From sharecropper parents who instilled the love and need for education in all their children to be the best they could be. A much-loved son, husband, father, brother uncle and role model.”

Benn died in 1997 and was survived by his wife; his sons, Mack Benn III and Bruce T. Benn; and many other family, friends and colleagues in Suffolk that mourned him then and continue to do so today.

In 1998, the year after his death, the city opened Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School in his honor. The school’s motto, according to its website, is “moving beyond excellence step by step.”

“I would like his legacy to be one of dedication to the town in which he lived and died,” Benn wrote about her husband. “I believe that he did everything he could to make the school system better for the students in the town he truly loved.”