Once Upon a Time, Schools Didn’t Need Fancy Buildings, Big Bureaucracies and Trauma Counselors to Teach

Gail Smith

by James A. Bacon

When Gail Smith talks about growing up in 1950s-era Goochland County, she calls her time attending the Second Union Rosenwald School as “the best years of my life.” The two-room schoolhouse was lacking in what we refer to today as “amenities.” But it was supported by the local African-American community, and it had spirit.

There were no school buses in her poor farming community — Smith passed through woods on her trek to and from school. There was no indoor plumbing or running water, either. The boys went to a nearby spring with a bucket and dipper to fetch water. Nor were there grocery stores, much less free meals — students brought their farm-raised lunches in brown bags. There wasn’t even central heating. During cold weather, the boys scoured the woods to gather kindling for the fire. School lasted five hours until 2:15, with time off for two 15-minute breaks. When the kids heard the bell, they hurried back to their classroom. Smith and her contemporaries recall a teacher, Fannie Beale, with great fondness for her firmness and her ability to inspire.

“We were poor but we were happy,” Smith says. “We came to school excited to learn.” She and many classmates went on to earn higher-ed degrees and pursue professional careers.

Smith spoke at an event this morning organized by the Second Union Rosenwald School Museum, which has converted the old schoolhouse into a museum, and the Richmond Jewish Coalition, which has supported the museum. The original school was an outgrowth of a partnership between famed African-American educator Booker T. Washington and Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.

Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears, who gave the keynote address, said that Second Union Rosenwald showed what was possible when the community had “skin in the game.”

Rosenwald created a new philanthropic model of providing matching funds to groups that had organized to raise money on their own. All told, his partnership with Washington funded 5,000 schools that at one time were responsible for educating one-third of all African-Americans in the South. The parents of First Union, one of seven or eight such schools in Goochland County, held bake sales and raffles, and contributed their own labor and materials. Since the end of Jim Crow and the onset of integration, the schools have shut down. First Union has been preserved as a repository of memory.

Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears

Such community solidarity and zest for learning seems alarmingly lacking today, Sears said. She recalled visiting a beautiful new school several years ago — it had indoor bathrooms, air-conditioning and separate classrooms for each class — “yet there was no joy.” When she asked the kids what made them want to come to school, no one had an answer. Finally, one boy said, “I’m just glad to live another day.” In another school visit, she recalled, she asked children if they could pass any law what would it be. One little guy said, “I want to make a law, if you kill someone, you have to pay for his funeral.”

“We’ve come a long way,” said Sears, who grew up in a similarly small school in Jamaica before emigrating as a child to the United States. “But we’ve taken ten steps back.” Too many people, she said, have forgotten the words of African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Education means emancipation.”

The audience responded to Spears’ remarks with plenty of “uh huhs,” and the decline in school discipline was a common theme among other African-Americans — most of them elderly — who spoke at the event.

Referring to the school chores, alumnus Calvin Hopkins said, “The young men knew what they had to do, and they did it well.” Discipline and respect ruled at Second Union Rosenwald, he said.

“Boys and girls were so well-behaved,” remembered 95-year-0ld Ruth Cooke-Johnson, who was a substitute teacher at the school. She contrasted the positive  attitudes then with the “troublesome time today.” Poor student behavior, she said, is a reason why it’s hard to keep teachers in schools.

Education is in a “national crisis,” said Sears. Americans are no longer close to being the most educated people in the world. In the most recent PISA international testing scores, Americans ranked 22nd internationally in reading and 30th in math. That is unacceptable, she said, for a nation that wants to remain competitive in a global economy.

For African-American students, the education crisis is even more profound. Sears quoted numbers from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in which 35% of Whites and 80% of Blacks failed to perform at a grade-proficient level.

Other than suggesting to remind young people of the hardships their elders overcame, Sears did not offer any remedies to address the crisis. But Calvin Hopkins made a comment that might point the way. The education he received at Second Union Rosenwald enabled him to enter the Air Force in 1966. Reading comprehension was key to passing the test. Mrs. Beale had emphasized reading comprehension, he recalled. Students had to read something at night and come in the next day to talk about what they read. Reading homework. It worked once. Maybe it could work again.

In introductory remarks, Ken Lipstock, a co-founder of the Richmond Jewish Coalition, invoked an ancient virtue — self reliance.

I am certain that Mr Washington, a former slave living in the bitterly racist South and  Mr. Rosenwald, A Jew living in an age when antisemitism ran rampant, didn’t look  at themselves as victims but as victors in their own lives, and believed that everyone, in this particular case African Americans, has the ability to follow their dreams, whatever they are if given the opportunity for a solid education. They believed that  Self-reliance is key to success.

Self reliance. It worked once. Maybe it could work again.

Find out more about the Second Union Rosenwald Museum at the museum website.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


38 responses to “Once Upon a Time, Schools Didn’t Need Fancy Buildings, Big Bureaucracies and Trauma Counselors to Teach”

  1. VaNavVet Avatar

    I did spend my fourth grade year in a two room public school in Oregon that housed 6 grades with three in each room. I do remember it fondly. Lets hope that the Youngkin admin does offer some solutions for improvement of the current situation.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Great story. Enjoyed reading about Gail Smith’s school. That story can be found all over Virginia.

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Uh yep, and an 8th grade education was considered good ’nuff. Then came WWII.

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.
    “I was overcome with acute nostalgia for my days in college”

    Especially strong among those who didn’t live at the time, e.g., Republicans and 1861.

    1. Ruckweiler Avatar

      More leftist nonsense. Go peddle your papers elsewhere.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        The election was a fraud… see you in he funny papers.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Percentage of persons 14 years old and over who were illiterate (unable to read or write in any language), by race and nativity: 1870 to 1979

    Year Total White Black and other
    Total Native Foreign-born
    1870 20.0 11.5 – – 79.9
    1880 17.0 9.4 8.7 12.0 70.0
    1890 13.3 7.7 6.2 13.1 56.8
    1900 10.7 6.2 4.6 12.9 44.5
    1910 7.7 5.0 3.0 12.7 30.5
    1920 6.0 4.0 2.0 13.1 23.0
    1930 4.3 3.0 1.6 10.8 16.4
    1940 2.9 2.0 1.1 9.0 11.5
    1947 2.7 1.8 – – 11.0
    1950 3.2 – – – –
    1952 2.5 1.8 – – 10.2
    1959 2.2 1.6 – – 7.5
    1969 1.0 0.7 – – 3.6 *
    1979 0.6 0.4 – – 1.6 *
    * Based on black population only
    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970; and Current Population Reports, Series P-23, Ancestry and Language in the United States: November 1979. (This table was prepared in September 1992.)

    Table formatted here. https://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.asp

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Let me see if I understand the logic here. Segregation and criminally-neglected schools ate OK if the kids show a good attitude.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      The 1950s were really great for these black ladies. They had reserved seats on the bus and black communities had their own schools, hospitals, businesses and churches. The only time they had to deal with whitey was when their men were lynched, or infected in the name of science, their businesses burned or their churches were bombed. Good times.

    2. No, you don’t understand the logic here. You have drawn an absurd conclusion.

    3. Ruckweiler Avatar

      That’s not what’s been said. It was that despite these problems these folks persevered and practiced self-reliance instead of wallowing in the situation. Maybe you and “Nancy Naive” need help in “reading comprehension.”

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        you don’t think those ‘problems” came about because of race and racism so you ignore that part and give them kudos for being “self-reliant” instead?

        “self-reliance” did not help them overcome what was done to them. They’re still suffering the effects of that – today – as a race that was harmed by racism perpetrated by another race that now lauds their “self-reliance” and claims that’s the real point.

        1. Ruckweiler Avatar

          Get a grip. Yes, Jim Crow and all the rest was there but the difference was the response of the people in the article TO that prejudice. Don’t know how old you are, I’m 70, but obviously you’re listening to the race hustlers telling you that nothing has changed. The people in the article didn’t let circumstances keep them down which is exactly the point of the story. Read the book “Hidden Figures” and/or see the movie to illustrate my sentiments.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            their “response’ was not enough to change the tide for them as a race and the proof of that is how many of them went on to become doctors, engineers, own land and house , send their own kids to college and provide them with wealth inheritance.

            I’m old enough to have attended segregated schools. I know the truth.

            Hidden Figures is a movie that told the truth but how many of those black women could have been engineers in their own right had they been able to get the education that they did not get but white folks got?

            We’re talking about the vast, vast majority of black folks , not the one or two that managed to advance despite the odds against them.

            Today, 4% of doctors and engineers are black. That’s the result of decades-long systemic racism against their race – their fathers and grandfathers, most of who did NOT receive a good education because they were denied that opportunity unless somehow they managed to be “self-reliant” while their white counterparts had no such challenges.

            Ask yourself why there are so few blacks today as doctors, engineers, generals, etc.. why?

          2. Merchantseamen Avatar

            That Larry Guy is like Joy Reid. Nothing but racist talk. Has no argument. Therefore he devolves into name calling like. Racist!! He should really look it up and tell us what he means.

    4. killerhertz Avatar

      This article isn’t about race. The left makes failures in education about race – that’s the point.

  7. killerhertz Avatar

    I attended public schools in NJ through June w/o AC, HEPA filters, etc. in a ~75 year old building. We survived.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Maybe not. 75-year old… asbestos. Meh, somethin’ gotta get everybody sometime. Is mesothelioma really all that bad?

      1. killerhertz Avatar

        asbestos doesn’t go in the air unless it’s disturbed, so unless you are a contractor renovating mechanicals it’s a non-issue.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Yeah. Funny thing about asbestos, some guy works in an office at the shipyard for a few years, and his wife dies from cleaning the lint screen on the dryer.

  8. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    Some time ago, Fairfax County Public Schools and the Archdiocese of New York’s schools had a comparable number of students. And both offered special education classes. The latter’s central office staff was 26 people, while the former had 200 curriculum specialists when I investigated the issue.

    And then there is the DC Bar’s interview of Joseph Califano in the late 1990s. He explained that there was no real need to create a separate Department of Education. Rather, it was done to please the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

    While the details have changed, the motivations are the same. And thanks to the repurposed MSM, there is no need to inform the public about these staffing and political payoff issues.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    what percent of doctors are black?

    what percent of engineers are black?

    How about CEOs?

    How about Generals in the military?

    Coaches in the major PRO sports?

    pretty much across the board – the number is 4-5%

    if black folks got such good educations back in the 1950’s why are their
    numbers so low in the professions requiring good educations?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      if black folks got such good educations back in the 1950’s why are their
      numbers so low in the professions requiring good educations?

      Because anybody who was in Kindergarten in 1959 is 68 years old today and retired? Anybody who was past Kindergarten in 1959 is older.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        yes, but what about THEIR Kids and grandkids who would be doctors, lawyers, engineers, military leaders, pro-sports leaders, today?

        Do you know what percentage of these fields today are made up of blacks?

        What will you say is the reason why they are not represented in their demographic percentages but instead percentages of 4-5%?


        1. Merchantseamen Avatar

          They all work for the bureaucracy. Good paying never get fired and public sector union jobs. Out in 20 years. Please tell me Larry. If this country is so RACIST as you say. That white people are a hair trigger away to hunt these people down. Why does half the world want to come to this country to live work and become successful? How about the other half breaking our laws and risking their lives to get here? Please do tell.

  10. Ruckweiler Avatar

    We have confused, throughout the country, building projects and so-called “amenities” with feeding the brain useful knowledge. Instead, we focus on the plant and social engineering and are shocked when the kids come out barely educated. Graduated from the old Mount Vernon High in 1970 in Alexandria and while I was no great scholar in those days I received a useful education in an upbeat milieu. Enjoyed this article.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I graduated from Groveton in 1977. Took a lot of classes in permanent trailers. No problem.

      The facilities are much better today and American kids are worse educated – at least compared to kids in other countries.

      The facilities are not now (and never have been) the problem.

      1. Ruckweiler Avatar

        Agree. As an example, look at what kids 100 years ago were learning in elementary school and compare that to the mush they’re supposedly learning today in high school.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          not in Europe and Asia…. and they are public schools also……….



          we don’t want rigor in our schools.

          You try to increase rigor in US schools – like Common core and most parents strongly oppose it. They don’t want their kids grades to get lower.

          1. Ruckweiler Avatar

            Understand your comment but my concern is with the lousy system here in the US. Was a Florida 9th-grade teacher before being laid off due to 9/11 and we all spent way too much time on “discipline” and keeping the kids under control so that teaching the subject was almost secondary.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            Well, if you read here often enough, you’ll find that JAB and other conservative bloggers believe that kids are not learning because of discipline problems.

            That we need MORE of it AND we need to kick out the kids causing the discipline issues.

            But the academic issues with out schools is national in scope and has been that way for 30 years.

            It’s documented by NAEP and PISA.

            No matter the school – even private schools (part of NAEP data) do not teach the rigor that Asian and European schools do – primarily in the critical thinking area.

            That’s those feared “word” problems in the back of Algebra books that we largely do not teach in our curriculums.

            simple stuff conceptually – but requires good grounding in mathematics and ability to solve a problem by determining how to set up a proper equation that takes the right inputs and produces the correct answer.

            We simply do not do this in our schools – whether they have discipline problems or not… we just don’t do it and as a result we rank 25th and worse in world rankings with regard to math, science and reading.

          3. Ruckweiler Avatar

            Obviously, you’ve not taught. Besides discipline, which is more of a problem than you would know despite all the “data”, we decided long ago that rigor in class and textbooks is too hard on the kids. Give you one more example in my teaching 9th-grade Math. First test, the kids asked me for the formula sheet as they’d been given before me. I had given them all the tools to perform but as a new teacher I didn’t realize that they expected this sheet. Told them you have to put this in your heads, guys. The foreign school systems quite generally stick to the business of rigorous education and in Germany, for example, there is not the mania that college is for everyone. There is a point where kids there take a test and those going to college/university follow that preparatory track. Those that don’t enter a vocational/apprenticeship program.

          4. LarrytheG Avatar

            I’ve not taught but I’m pretty tight with a number of folks who do and have.

            And classroom management is paramount no matter the grade.

            Your next words on trying to teach is a mouthful and aren’t you essentially confirming that we – the parents and the kids do not want rigor and if you insisted, what would actually happen? You’d fail a bunch of the then have the parents after your a$$ , right?

            Germany – and others – deal in terms of ‘technical” careers whether they be a 4 year college or a trade school or an apprenticeship or other.

            We are almost single-minded in this country – go to college or be a failure.

            but even the ones that go to college do not have a solid ability to critically think for problem solving unless they are the rare few going into EE or Medical School.

            but doesn’t this start back in k-12 and academic rigor?

          5. Ruckweiler Avatar

            Finally, I’m saying that we, as a country, accepted or allowed rigor to depart the public school classroom and the “educational establishment” in the NEA/AFT became trade unions protecting their members from responsibility for the result. Obviously, you need to educate yourself better on exactly what they do in Germany. Not everyone there becomes an engineer which is the stereotype. Their system attempts to provide the proper training for all disciplines, regardless, which is their aim. Wiedersehen.

          6. LarrytheG Avatar

            I think if we really wanted and demanded rigor – the NEA/AFT would not stop it.

            It’s on us and we want to blame others for what we won’t do ourselves.

            I don’t think everyone in Germany becomes an engineer at all – quite the contrary – but the average post-high school worker in many technically-based industry in Germany is much better educated than we are and that goes back to the rigor they do have in their K-12 system.

            And it goes to their ability to successfully compete in world markets vice our college-educated kids that end up in non-technical employment.

            Have you read this book?


            came recommended from an Education administrator of Virginia Region VII school districts.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    The “kids” who attended these “self-reliant” schools are now the parents and grand parents of the black kids in school today. Right? If they were so well educated, what happened to THEIR kids.

    The vast majority not only did not go to college, they barely could read and write much less compete for a decent good-paying job that provided health care and retirement benefits or an ability to buy a house or even a car.

    Most of them worked and survived as laborers and domestic help and lived in poor neighborhoods where the schools were largely and STILL black and not “equal” to schools in predominantly white higher income neighborhoods.

    It was basically the Virginia version of Apartheid.

    You cannot do this to an entire race of people for decades and not have some of the problems we do have today and pretend otherwise with happy talk history.

    And the irony is that it’s now “inherently divisive” to tell the truth about it so of course we regale folks with just how wonderful life was for blacks during Massive Resistance.


    1. Merchantseamen Avatar

      Says you.

  12. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Jim, my problem is that you never seem to want to question who created these conditions.

Leave a Reply