Separate and Unequal — Part I, Elementary and High School Days
My early childhood education started at Fair Oaks Elementary School, a segregated school in Henrico County, Virginia. At that time (1958), separate but equal laws (Jim Crow) prevented black kids (we were Negroes then) from attending schools with white kids.
Most of elementary school is a blur; however, several things stand out. First, discipline problems were not an issue as they are today. Teachers were known for striking kids, and there were no polices against it. Moreover, kids behaved because they feared the punishment their parents would inflict if they were informed of the misbehavior at school. One teacher was known for throwing stuff and cracking kids across the knuckles with a ruler. My brother recalls being struck across the knuckles because he could not remember an assignment.
Morning prayers (we a homogeneous group, mostly Baptist) and the pledge of allegiance to the flag were norms.
I recall my fourth-grade teacher, who taught U.S. history, becoming very angry when classmates purchased confederate memorabilia during a visit to Colonial Jamestown, Virginia. I also recall the disbelief I felt when a white superintendent spoke to my seventh-grade class, and said we had one of the best facilities in the county — my seventh-grade mind wondered how we could have one of the best facilities when we had only one basketball hoop as opposed to full basketball courts at nearby white schools.
While most my remembrances of elementary school were dramatic in nature, I recall the passion, compassion, pride and dedication of the teachers. Mrs. Zenobia (Rev Z.) Scott (seventh grade) and Mrs. Cosby (fifth grade) stand out. They were role models, and we aspired to be like them. They told us if we could dream it; we could achieve it.
Virginia’s schools were still segregated when it came time for me to go to high school. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s call to end segregation in its 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Virginia’s lawmakers, led by Senator Harry Byrd Sr. (a democrat), passed Massive Resistance laws to defy Brown vs. Board of Education and delay desegregation. When the Massive Resistance laws were ruled unconstitutional in 1959 by federal and state courts, Virginia implemented a Pupil Placement Board, a passive resistance plan, which assigned select black students to white schools — I do not recall anything about that program. I do recall the next form of passive resistance, Freedom-of-choice, which gave families the right to choose between white and black schools. Freedom-of-choice plans remained in place until the late 1960's when the US Supreme Court ruled that they were not enough, by themselves, to achieve integration.
Because of overt racism and known indignities experienced by black students who attended white schools, there was no compelling reason for me to choose to attend or my family to send me to a white school. I felt that at the point in my life the nurturing provided by black teachers and administrators and the esprit de corps garnered in an environment of familiarity outweighed the benefits from sitting beside white students in a hostile environment. As such, I attended Virginia Randolph High School in Glen Allen, Virginia, the only historically black high school in Henrico County. I traveled 22 miles one-way by bus to get to school, by-passing Highland Springs High, Hermitage High, and Henrico High schools.
I excelled academically at Virginia Randolph, particularly in mathematics. I fell under the tutelage of the renown and dedicated math teacher and coach, Mr. Ernest Parker, who was known for nurturing his students and willing them to success. Mr. Parker’s favorite saying was: “Drill, drill, drill for skill.” And, drill we did. After school, several other students and I (Parker’s kids) strong in math would spend several hours after school fine-tuning our math skills and taking tests. Mr. Parker would then, at his expense, take us home to various locations throughout the county — that was dedication.
The extra work paid off. At state-wide math and science conferences, Virginia Randolph students typically took top prizes. During my sophomore year, a classmate placed first and I placed second in the state-wide Algebra I test. . The next year I placed first in Algebra II.
During my 10th grade year (1968), based on standardized test scores and with Mr. Parker’s urging, I was awarded a full academic scholarship to attend Culver Military Academy (Culver Academies) in Culver, Indiana. My parents were not particularly thrilled about me going away to school; however, Mr. Parker pushed extolling the value of the opportunity, and my parents relented allowing me to go.
The scholarship, valued at about $52 thousand per year in 2019 dollars, was part of a social experiment known as the A Better Chance program (ABC Program). The ABC Program awarded full scholarships to academically gifted students of color to attend private college preparatory (prep) schools. This was a defining moment in my life, something I had dreamed about. It affirmed that there was value added from those additional hours put in during the evenings. It also would lay the foundation for me to be accepted into elite colleges.