This is a story of pride, determination, commitment to a common goal and a quest for knowledge which had been suppressed for over 100 years. As the Civil War came to an end many former slaves, now “freedmen”, looked forward to a better life. Prior to the War, the education of slaves had been controversial and mostly discouraged and even in some states it was illegal. Now these Americans who had been working for others as farm hands, watermen and tradesmen in the carpentry, blacksmithing, millwrighting and other labor positions, now diligently sought an education, a formal education which many believed was the true path to freedom.
During reconstruction, the rebuilding of the education system in Virginia was slow. After April 1865, small schools for former slaves began appearing, mostly established by churches and other black civic organizations. The South’s reconstruction policies called for public schools to be funded by the state and established for both black and white children. These schools were segregated from the onset probably because of the widely held assumption that such an arrangement would probably reduce the opportunity for conflict. This did not seem to be an issue because most black people were thrilled to have any free education at all. They also liked having schools of their own, not subject to white interference, in which the children would feel comfortable in their new surroundings and not be subjected to possible racial epithets. These schools, however, were at the mercy of the white-controlled state government for funding and black schools received less funding than the white schools. They had fewer books, less functional classrooms and buildings, and teachers were not paid on the same scale as their white counterparts. In addition, primary education for blacks consisted of class grades 1 through grade 7. No high school was offered. Students were required to go elsewhere to attend high school in Virginia.
This lasted until the late 1800s, when a concerned group of ministers, civic leaders and black businessmen from Virginia’s Middle Peninsula realized the dire need for a high school in the area that young blacks could attend. The Southside Rappahannock Baptist Association, an association of black churches in Middlesex, Essex and King and Queen Counties, began a process to fill that need. In 1897, at a meeting of the local ministers at Calvary Baptist Church in Middlesex County, it was decided by a vote of the association to create a school. Pledges of support ranging from thirty dollars to one dollar were accepted. A board of trustees was chosen and plans began for the first private black high school in the Middle Peninsula. The first committee appointed by the board was for the identification and purchase of a site to build the school. According to an article by Marie H. Harrison in the Essex County Historical Society Bulletin, Volume 10, November 1976, the committee had difficulty finding a tract of land that would meet their needs.
In September 1900, G. H. and Emma Dillard sold a tract of land, with improvements, to the Academy Board of Trustees. This property was part of a farm located south of Tappahannock near Ozena, Virginia, known as Mount Vista. The Southside Association purchased the 159 acre tract for $1200.00 and payment of some back taxes. The school opened on January 1, 1902 with classes being held temporarily in a renovated farmhouse on the property. The two iconic three-story buildings were built shortly thereafter and named for two of the Academy’s founding fathers, Reverend C. R. Towles and Dr. R. E. Berkley. Towles Hall housed the female boarding students as well as the administrative office, the chapel and the dining hall and had a capacity to house forty-five students. The male dormitory, Berkley Hall, housed thirty students as well as three classrooms, the library, the chemistry lab and quarters for male teachers. The boarding students came from Essex, King and Queen, Middlesex and other counties in Virginia. There were also many day students as well as some students from out of state.
Rappahannock Industrial Academy began as a two-year institution. Being a private institution only offering two years of study, the school failed to meet accreditation requirements from the State of Virginia. This did not affect the determination of the teachers, students and the Southside Association to provide a learning environment for black students post elementary school. With slow but steady growth, the school progressed to a three-year institution and then in 1934, the Academy became fully accredited by the state. This was a result of the unfaltering commitment to black youth education by local supporters and supporters from other locations.
Although named as an Industrial Academy, the curriculum followed that of the high schools of the day. English, math, history and the sciences were the core subjects, and other subjects were offered. The most popular were music lessons, both instrument and voice, and student participation in some form was required. Other activities included a drama team, a glee club, a school quartet, oratorical team and a choral club. Other activities were basketball, baseball, the school yearbook and the school newspaper. The most popular sport was the baseball team. RIA competed against St. Clair Walker in Middlesex as well as another private school in Gloucester.
Expenses for the operation of the school were derived from a multitude of sources. Records indicate that of the total operational budget from 1902 – 1948 was $107,000.00 which included $53,965.00 paid by the students. This was the cost of tuition, room, board, as well as musical instrument lessons. The remainder of $53,726 came from the Southside Rappahannock Baptist Association, the Raikes Sunday School Convention and the sale of timber and farm produce raised by the school. Personal contributions, however large or small, gave the black community a sense of participation. The fees charged in those days seem ridiculously low compared to private schools cost today. For the school year of 1940 – 1941, boarding students paid for room and board $12.00 for the first month and $11.00 per month for each subsequent month during the school year. Student fees were equally low by today’s standards. The entrance fees included a physical by the school physician, Dr. Elric G. Stewart, MD. Dr. Stewart went on to become the first black doctor in Tappahannock, operating a practice until his retirement. The cost of this physical was 25 cents. The chemistry lab fee was $1.50, and an optional music fee was $1.00. Anyone requesting a specific room was required to make a $2.50 deposit fee. Seems very reasonable, but many of the parents supporting the cost of their children attending RIA were struggling, especially through the Depression years of the middle 1930s. Again, commitment to a good education for their children, something denied them, was the driving factor. As the parents worked hard, the students themselves in many cases also worked to make ends meet.
Typical contributions, other than money, were food items such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, canned fruit and vegetables, and homemade preserves and butter. Other required resources such as fuel oil, firewood and grain were supplied as the community made sure the school prospered. One year, more than 60 families from the area as well as from other parts of the state, rose to the occasion and contributed to the foodstuffs and other needed supplies.
Operations of the school were explained in a 1992 Daily Press newspaper interview by Louise Gray with Miss Edwardine Robinson, the daughter of the former principal, W. E. Robinson, and a person who spent much of her early life at the Academy. She graduated from RIA in 1922 before accreditation. Miss Robinson was then required to attend a mission school in Richmond to obtain her high school diploma. She obtained that diploma and went on to graduate from Virginia Union University in 1928 with a teaching degree. She then returned to Rappahannock Industrial Academy and taught for over 5 years.
Miss Robinson spoke in this interview of the curriculum at Rappahannock Industrial as being college preparatory. English, Latin, geometry, algebra and history were taught early on. Later sciences were added. Physical education was an elective. However, no academic credit was offered for it. Other activities were field trips to museums and colleges in the area.
Miss Robinson stated that the “boarding students were required to keep their own rooms clean and straight”. She added that a rotation of different groups kept the halls, stairways and common use rooms clean. Since there was no central heating, the boys were required to keep the numerous wood stoves supplied with wood during the winter months. “A sizable job,” she said. Cooking was done usually by a school cook, but sometimes the older girls would work in the kitchen if there was a shortage of help. Classes began promptly at 9:00 a.m. but there was always the choice to attend daily devotions before classes began.
The men and women who recognized the idea of a need for a secondary school offering college preparatory classes for black youth was bold indeed in the early 1900s in Virginia. The herculean effort was justified by the number of successful graduates. Miss Robinson stated that most Rappahannock Industrial Academy graduates went on to colleges and became teachers, ministers, doctors, and civic, church and community leaders. These people were certainly role models for future generations. The devotion of these graduates was reflected in the robust alumni association with their steadfast loyalty.
The only thing that remains of this exemplary enterprise is the old gateposts and a monument erected by the alumni association in 1982. Declining enrollment caused by the expansion of public education to be more inclusive was the death kneel for Rappahannock Industrial Academy. This bold venture, undertaken by a group of people who recognized a need that was not being addressed, embodied the visionary efforts of the founders. These men and women saw a need and through hard work and commitment, produced an institution that was the envy of all. It would be nice if all people would mirror the efforts of these pioneers and be as visionary in today’s society. Again, the catch word for people on the Middle Peninsula was tenacity. Through setbacks, disappointments and occasional failure, dreams of the future began.
A special thank you and acknowledgement to: The Essex County Historical Society and Museum; The Rappahannock Industrial Academy, Louise Gray, The Daily Press Newspaper, Hampton, Virginia, August 1982.; The Essex County Historical Society Bulletin, History of the Rappahannock Industrial Academy, Marie H. Harrison,
Volume 10, November 1976.; and the numerous research papers,
articles and books by Mrs. Lillian Hill McGuire. Mrs. McGuire herself was a graduate of Rappahannock Industrial Academy and exemplifies the quality education provided there.