By: Ava Genho, Headwaters Rapp Writing Intern
In the fall of 1966, Angela Dennis walked into the Sperryville School for the first time as a student. More than a decade before, in 1954, The US Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregation in American public schools unconstitutional.
Although all schools were then required to integrate, there was backlash from many states, including Virginia. This was known as Massive Resistance, and some counties, including neighboring Warren County, went so far as shutting down schools rather than integrating.
In 1966, Rappahannock County made it optional for Black students to attend the “whites-only” schools. A year later, the county officially opened its doors to all students, regardless of skin color. A huge step towards a more inclusive school system, not only for Angela and other Black students during integration but for future generations in Rappahannock County.
Prior to the Sperryville School, Angela Dennis attended Scrabble School in Castleton, one of four Rosenwald schools for Black students in Rappahannock County.
The school was right down the road from Dennis Store, the country market that Angela’s parents ran. The school was one large room with a divider that could be pulled across the middle, and it educated first through seventh graders. After graduating from seventh grade, students went on to George Washington Carver Regional High School in Culpeper.
Unlike schools for white students at the time, Scrabble School was without running water.
For part of the time while Angela was in school, there were no indoor toilets. There was no cafeteria, no refrigerator. Students stored their lunches in cubbies alongside their coats and bags.
Once a week in the wintertime, one parent volunteered to bring soup and another to bring sandwiches. The school also lacked any playground equipment besides a single pull-up bar.
That’s not to say Angela and her classmates didn’t enjoy school. Every spring, Black students in Rappahannock County came together for the annual May Day celebration. On this day students competed in races and games. Each school would choose a girl to run for queen and a boy to run for king, and the winners earned the privilege of wrapping the maypole.
Integration in Rappahannock brought an end to Scrabble School as it was.
Angela and her classmates transferred to Sperryville.
“For the most part, we didn’t realize we were treated differently until we integrated,” Angela says. “There was a lunchroom, an auditorium, and great big bathrooms. I think, since we didn’t have all that other stuff, we were more focused on our studies.”
With few extracurriculars or other distractions, Angela and her classmates were very education oriented. They learned in a classroom with multiple grades and were able to listen in on the higher levels.
“I think we were more advanced in that aspect,” Angela says. Also, students at the Scrabble School were “taught more about respecting administrators and teachers.”
Besides newer and more advanced facilities, there was also a change in the school climate.
“My parents always taught me that everybody was the same,” Angela says. “Our family’s method was to instill love and treat everyone respectfully.” She had a ‘rude awakening’ at the Sperryville School. “I was hurt when I realized that not everybody thought that way.”
Throughout her high school career, Angela was very involved in the school. “I was in cheerleading, honor society, and I helped with prom.”
Angela and her Black classmates faced racism from their new peers, as well as students from other schools. “There were some students’ parents who didn’t want change, and they made things very difficult. They would act like they were entitled, and we didn’t deserve to go to school there.
“People would say things,” Angela remembers. “But I had a thick enough skin that I didn’t act on it. Also, there was tension at games with other schools. We saw a lot more racism from other schools than we saw in Rappahannock.”
She concludes, “My children had it easier, but we paved the way.”
In the 1990s, only a little over 20 years after Rappahannock schools were integrated, there was visible progress. Hope Dunn, a Black woman who attended school here during that time, recalls, “Growing up in Rappahannock Schools, I didn’t feel a lot of the difference.”
Today, Rappahannock County Public Schools boasts an Equity Committee headed by Executive Director of Administrative Services Robin Bolt, EdD.
It is dedicated to educational equity, not only for students of color but also for those who have socio-economic differences and different educational needs. Dr. Bolt emphasizes how important it is for students to have a supportive environment to learn in. “In our schools, we want every kid to succeed,” she says.
The Equity Committee is just one example of the steps RCPS is taking to help all students feel welcome at the schools. As the RCHS Principal Carlos Seward puts it, “the future of
Rappahannock Schools is access, opportunity, and inclusion.” Although there is still work to be done, RCPS is working confidently toward these goals and a better future.
At the close of this Black History Month, we recognize the racism and oppression that people like Dennis experienced and are still dealing with today. We also celebrate how far our school system and county have come in terms of equity and fairness, largely because of the efforts of those who came before.
Published by Ava Genho, Headwaters’ Rapp Writing Intern
Re-published by MadRapp Recorder