School’s open. We take public schooling for granted but it wasn’t always so in Richmond, Virginia. Private schools or informal groups of children meeting in residences were common. Public schools were only built when residents raised funds and donated land and materials. Black or white, parents were determined to provide education for their children and their efforts resulted in the predecessors of many of our existing schools. The first public school building in the city was Booker T. Washington at 21 E. Leigh Street. In rural Bon Air, our family friend, Irby Brown, traveled to Chester to stay with relatives and attend what evolve into Thomas Dale HS. I have a video of 104-year-old Irby singing the school song. Education was precious and Richmonders were willing to sacrifice to achieve it.

Believed to be Robert E. Lee School room

Believed to be Robert E. Lee School room

My great-grandmother, Mary Perry Stilson, was a school teacher, in Michigan and later in Orange, Virginia, where she held classes in her parlor. Her husband, Harris Stilson, received his teaching certificate but didn’t use it. In her journal, Mary explained that Harry was offended when his wife was offered more pay (she had seniority as a teacher) so he revised his career plans. Harry was first a farmer, then a streetcar motorman on the streets of Richmond. Perhaps we should be grateful that Harry Stilson’s pride was wounded. If he had accepted a teaching post in Michigan, we wouldn’t have photographs of Richmond in the early 1900s that he took along his streetcar route and in daily life and I would never have created Richmond In Sight to share those images.

Among those photos are children and schools. Unfortunately, identifying school buildings, mostly background for his subjects, is time-consuming and difficult. Scraps of notes, journal entries listing “colored school in background”, and so forth are often the only clues. One easily identified is Robert E. Lee School. Harry’s grandchildren went there and I have promotion certificates, school books, autograph books, and a clip of the school yard at recess in one of the restored Stilson films. Here is a still shot from that movie along with my aunt’s promotion certificate and songbook:

Robert E. Lee Schoolyard from Stilson films

Robert E. Lee Schoolyard from Stilson films

R.E. Lee promotional card

R.E. Lee promotional card

Songbook from Robert E. Lee School room

Songbook from Robert E. Lee School room

One school displayed prominently in the Stilson collection is Hartshorn Memorial College, which later merged with Virginia Union. Credited with being the first American college for black women and conferring the first Bachelor’s degree from an African-American college, Hartshorn stood where Maggie Walker’s Governor’s School is located today at Lombardy and Leigh. Hartshorn also had a high school department and Virginia Union’s archivist confirmed that Maude E. Brown and Iva Carter, shown below, were students there. Whoever decided to raze these stunning buildings must have been related to the guys who burned our streetcars. Tragic decisons, both of them.

0214 hartshorn streetcar        Maude E. Brown Iva Carter

In recent years, it seems there has been a plot to erase my schools from the landscape. First they tore down Bon Air Elementary School. Mom called me to comfort me that, yes, the school had been destroyed, but not to worry. She had stolen bricks from the rubble. I assumed that her illegal activities were inspired by the fact that her mother, my grandmother, Sue Sneed Fleming, was on the fundraising committee for the “new school” to procure better bricks and mortar. Nope. Mom said, heck no. I stole them because ALL of the family went to Bon Air Elementary.
Last year I did an entry about the Huguenot High School water tower being removed in preparation for the destruction of the “old” Huguenot High School (old? excuse ME! I went there!) and the construction of a new school building.  I heard from a lot of HHS alumni mourning the loss of “our” water tower. It’s not entirely lost. I have two pieces of the HHS water tower at my house. Unlike Mom, I didn’t steal them but I felt the same obligation to preserve our heritage. All those nocturnal climbs up the water tower should be revered by future generations of Falcons. It’s also easier to “paint” your name on the water tower when it’s on the ground in my yard.
On August 12, 2014, thanks to Betty Conner and Gerri Hall, approximately 150 of us made a final tour of Huguenot before they tear it down. In honor of our Huguenot heritage, I thought I’d compare a few of Harry Stilson’s pictures with his great-granddaughter’s photos. Things have changed in educational facilities since the early 1900s. I don’t know if Robert E. Lee School had a library but here’s the HHS library where Mrs. James reigned as librarian when I was a student.

HHS library

HHS library

If you’ve read my book, On the West Clay Line, you know that most kids went home for lunch in the early 1900s. No cafeterias unless you were in the “open air class” which were created to strengthen frail children. Those students attended classes with windows wide open, huddled in blankets. According to one of my “open air” pals, Aleck Mollen, his teacher cooked lunch for her “sickly” pupils. Possibly we should reconsider open air classes since many of my VERY old oral history sources were among those shivering in winter winds.

At Bon Air Elementary, it wasn’t teachers but my great-aunt who was on the cafeteria staff. At Huguenot HS, the cafeteria was where I met David T. He was in line behind me. It was a typically long line so we had time to agree to sit together and to meet the next day as well. Later we went steady so the Huguenot cafeteria holds a special place in my heart. I don’t remember if they had those wonderful homemade rolls the day I met David but they probably did. Today’s kids have no idea what cafeteria food used to be like, government surplus cheese, sauerkraut, sticky rice, and all. In honor of those memories, here is the Huguenot cafeteria with some of the Class of 1970:

Class of 1970 members in the HHS cafeteria

Class of 1970 members in the HHS cafeteria

Being sent to the principal’s office is a memory I can’t personally claim but even my pastor, Lee Ellison, Class of 1971, admits to such an event. His crime was wearing a skirt to school. However, my brother, Parks Rountrey, also Class of ’71, was routinely parked in the office for skipping school and other offenses. It’s fitting that I share this picture of Parks, at the scene of his former crimes, beside our brother Mike Rountrey, Class of 1968, who was never sent to the principal’s office. It should be noted that Parks repented of his sins in college and only visits the school office as a tourist these days.

Parks and Mike Rountrey

Parks and Mike Rountrey

 

One last walk down memory lane. In Harry’s day, indoor plumbing was not universal and in Jackson Ward, Carver, and Newtowne, public baths were common as were outhouses. I believe this Stilson image might have been taken behind Moore Street School. Harry labeled it “a colored friend, school outhouse” and I submit it alongside the girls’ bathroom at Huguenot High School. Some things have improved in Richmond schools.

Girls' Bathroom HHS

Girls’ Bathroom HHS

Possibly Moore Street School outhouse

I’d like to think that all of the ‘old’ Falcons of Huguenot High School have improved as well. Huguenot, we fondly love thee.

Rich Napier, Charlie Venable, Fran Hemby Owen, & Wilson Swann

Rich Napier, Charlie Venable, Fran Hemby Owen, & Wilson Swann, HHS hall

HHS hall

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