Historical highway marker going up at former Washington Rosenwald School
School for African Americans closed when county schools were desegregated
Eight new historical highway markers have been authorized by the Commonwealth of Virginia — one of which will be erected on Piedmont Avenue in the town of Washington, drawing attention to the former Washington Rosenwald School.
Washington Rosenwald School was built in 1924 after the Parents’ Civic League, a local African American organization, donated land to the school district. Financial contributions to construct the two-teacher school came from the black community ($1,200), the county ($1,600), and the Julius Rosenwald Fund ($700), which also supplied the building plans, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
The long-abandoned school, where during segregation many of the county’s African Americans received their educations, is located at 267 Piedmont Avenue. The roadside marker will likely be erected by VDOT directly in front of the school, Virginia Historic Resources spokesman Randy Jones told the Rappahannock News this week.
William Metcalf, who resides on Piedmont Avenue and owns the old Washington school, is listed as the forthcoming marker’s sponsor.
The marker will read:
Washington Rosenwald School: Washington School was built here ca. 1924 to serve African American students. The Parents’ Civic League, a local organization of African Americans, conveyed the land to the district school board. Contributions for the two-teacher building came from the black community ($1,200), Rappahannock County ($1,600), and the Julius Rosenwald Fund ($700). This fund, established by the president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co., and inspired by the work of Booker T. Washington, helped build more than 5,000 schools for black students between 1917 and 1932. Washington School closed in the mid-1960s, and county schools were desegregated by 1968. The school is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Topics covered by the other seven newly approved and forthcoming historical highway markers include the era of James River bateaumen; two Lee County natives who were expert at code-breaking and encryption during World War II and the Cold War; and a Newport News apprentice training school for the shipbuilding trades.
The marker “James River Bateaumen” will rise in Richmond and recollect the era from the 1770s through the mid-1800s, when bateaux plied the James River transporting goods between the capital and points west. The era of bateaumen on the river waned after 1840, when the James River and Kanawha Canal was completed to Lynchburg. “Crews of three men, often free or enslaved African Americans, performed the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of poling and steering the long, narrow boats,” the marker will read. Bateaux carrying tobacco, grains, iron ore, coal, and other commodities to Richmond helped to make the city an industrial and commercial hub.
“Lee County Code Breakers” recalls Frank B. Rowlett and Gene Grabeel who grew up in Rose Hill. Rowlett led a U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service team that in 1940 cracked the Japanese diplomatic cipher machine known as PURPLE. He was also instrumental in designing an American encryption machine that the Axis never decoded during World War II. Gabreel was one of two cryptanalysts whose decades of work, begun in 1943, “painstakingly deciphered encrypted Soviet communications and exposed a network of Soviet spies in the United States,” in the forthcoming marker’s words.
“The Apprentice School” in Newport News relays that the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, founded in 1886, had an informal apprentice training program in place by the 1890s and established a formal training school in 1919 for shipbuilding trades. One of the nation’s foremost builders of military and commercial ships, the company’s school emphasizes craftsmanship, scholarship, and leadership, and operates today, having graduated more than 10,000 students.
“Long Hunters” also slated for Lee County describes hunters who left home for many months at a time to pursue game beyond the limits of early white settlement in western Virginia during the 1700s. Hunting parties, often forming in the Holston River valley, headed west to set up base camps from which they hunted and explored present-day Kentucky and Tennessee. The Cherokee, Shawnee, and other Native Americans violently resisted long hunters’ use of their traditional hunting territory.
In Pulaski County, “New Dublin Presbyterian Church” recalls that the church’s congregation is one of the oldest in Southwest Virginia, consisting of 45 families by 1769. Revolutionary War officer Col. Joseph Cloyd donated the land for the first sanctuary, built in 1781. In the mid-1800s church members included enslaved African Americans. The church is affiliated with the May 9, 1864, Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain and its
cemetery contains the graves of veterans from the Civil War, and World Wars I and II. The present sanctuary, the third on the site, dates to around 1875.
In Goochland County, “Land Conservation in Virginia” will be the focus of a new marker. In 1966 the General Assembly enacted Virginia’s OpenSpace Land Act to promote land conservation. James M. Ball Jr. granted the first open-space easement to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state agency. He then conveyed his ownership of the 104-acre property to the University of Richmond for use as an outdoor classroom and laboratory.
Finally, besides the Rappahannock site, another marker highlighting African American schools will draw attention to the “George Washington Carver High School” in Chesterfield County, established in 1948. Consolidating two previous segregated black high schools, the school operated for 22 years as the county’s only public high school for African American students and served as a social hub for the black community. It closed in 1970, when the county finished implementing its desegregation plan.
All eight markers were approved by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, which is authorized to designate new historical markers, at its April 17 quarterly board meeting in Richmond. Typically, it can take upwards of three months or more before new markers are erected and dedicated by their sponsors. The manufacturing cost of each new highway marker is covered by its sponsor.
The Virginia highway marker program, which began in 1927 with installation of the first historical markers along U.S. 1, is considered the oldest such program in the nation. Currently there are more than 2,600 official state markers, most of which are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation, except in those localities outside of VDOT’s authority.
The markers are erected not to “honor” their subjects but rather to educate and inform the public about a person, place, or event of regional, state, or national importance. In this regard, markers are not memorials.
Washington Rosenwald School on Piedmont Avenue, as seen this week, will soon have a state historical marker placed out front.