Short synopsis of education for Negroes in Nansemond County

Published 1:40 am Saturday, March 9, 2019

By Ruby H. Walden

I have been blessed to live 97 years in Nansemond County, now the city of Suffolk as the result of a merger of the two municipalities in 1970. Even though Negro History month just passed, there are stories our citizens need to know about experiences Negroes had, or “colored” as they referred to blacks, trying to get an education.

Reflecting, my first seven years of education was in a two-room school that was built by parents, on land my grandparents deeded to the county for $30 before the county would provide a teacher. This was Silver Spring School, one of about 32 one- and two-room, and 4 three- and four-room schools for Negro students scattered all over Nansemond County. These schools served for many years before the county started gradually including them in the system. In most instances, the county took the buildings and land the parents had purchased and paid them nothing for it. In some cases there was a protective clause stating when it ceased to serve as a school, the land would revert to the original owner for the amount the county paid for it, which was true for Silver Spring School.

The first high school in Nansemond County for Negro students was built in 1924, which was known as a Julian Rosenwald School. Many believed he provided funds to build those schools ready to accommodate high school classes, later to find the parents raised more of those funds with a portion finally coming from the county and state.

Rosenwald made small investments in high schools throughout Virginia and North Carolina, and the question was, “Why nearly every high school he invested in was named a training school?” The answer was found when the Negro parents sued the Nansemond County school system for the Equalization of Schools in Nansemond County. When attorneys Victor Ashe, Hugo Madison and James A. Overton did research in preparing for the case, it was found these training schools were intended to “TRAIN” colored children, not to “TEACH” them. The intended message to Negroes was, “Take what you are given, and do as you are told.” This message was well instilled in those who were hand-picked and put in charge of some of those training schools. That slave mentality has been carried forth and has contributed gravely to the lack of and delay of, progress in education even today.

Negro parents had to fight continuously to get buildings, school supplies, equipment, curriculum, science rooms, home economics department or anything needed for the Nansemond County Training School. School buses were not thought of for colored children. While some Negro children were walking 5 to 7 miles to school each way every day, white children were riding in buses throwing trash out the windows on those walking. Four of us walking together even got shot by bird hunters while walking through woods. We often had to climb over fences, open and close gates, and go through different yards just to cut down on the long journey to a very inadequate high school. A school that had no library, no science or home economics department and the lack of so much more required for high school.

It took a strong desire, physical strength and a great determination to even go to school. In addition to those things we did not have, we had a school system that never saw a need of anything for the colored schools. The hand-picked, Rosenwald-trained personnel they put in place were forever loyal to their superiors by not asking for anything and doing as told, which compounded the total problems. Forty-two years of fighting by some who were once students, whose children and grandchildren, experienced some of all the same under the exact same loyal “actors.” Some students who transferred elsewhere could not even get their transcripts, parents who wanted better for their children had more than 40 years fighting an ongoing, unending battle. It wasn’t until the school system was sued by the Negro parents and the “top actors” retired at the same time after 42 years, that Nansemond County Training School got close to what was required for a high school.

After parents had gone to the school board two or three times asking for school buses, the committee was told by the superintendent, “to provide buses for all the colored children would be a luxury, they couldn’t afford that.” But, he said, “we do have two buses that have been condemned for use, if you want them, you can buy them for $200 as is, but they must be painted to avoid them being mistaken for the white children’s buses.” Needing them so badly the parents purchased them, paid for drivers, maintenance, and operating cost for three school terms, finally going to the state office to inform them that they were not doing that another year.

To their surprise, the superintendent showed them in the state ledger that the county claimed those buses and the operating expenses the same three years the parents had done so. Did that answer partly, how the school system was able to publish in the paper time and again at the end of the school year, how they had operated so efficiently? How they were able to return so much money to the state unused? It was certainly not used for Negro students even though money came to the county based on a dollar amount per student. What was even harder to understand, with twice as many Negro students as white students in Nansemond County at that time, which meant more money was allocated according to the percentage of blacks students.

There are many others stories that need to be told about what Negroes went through in trying to get an education in Nansemond County. This is only a short synopsis.

RUBY H. WALDEN is a lifetime, active and concerned citizen of Suffolk. Contact her at 657-6478 or