Right the Record: Culpeper Education

From Segregation to Desegregation

Author: Zann Nelson

Since the 1870 legislation mandating that all Virginia counties provide free public education, a dual educational system separating Black and white students existed. A scarcity of guidelines and policies allowed for a disparity in educational standards including inferior school buildings, lower wages for Black teachers, and inadequate or unavailable textbooks.

In 1870, Culpeper had mostly one-room schools, including 22 white schools and 8 Black schools, with a corresponding enrollment of 777 and 468, averaging 35.3 students attending each white school while 58.5 students were enrolled at each Black school. By 1905, Culpeper had added three graded schools for Black students and four for whites. These schools, according to local records included 1st – 7th or 8th grades.

The first county high school for white students was opened in 1907. It was not until 1948, that George Washington Carver Regional High School offered young Black students the opportunity for advanced education. It served the counties of Culpeper, Orange, Madison, and Rappahannock. Before the opening of Carver, students seeking a high school education were required to move to Manassas, DC, or even Pennsylvania.

Despite the 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education decision mandating the desegregation of all dual school systems, Culpeper County would not fully desegregate the public education system for another 14 years. Records report that racial integration occurred in Culpeper in 1963, though minimally and not exactly what the Supreme Court intended. In 1963, a student could apply to be transferred to a different school: a white student had the option to attend the all-Black A.G. Richardson or Carver High School and similarly, a Black student could attend Ann Wingfield, Sycamore Park, or the Culpeper County High School. If one did not apply, they remained at their current school. Furthermore, acceptance was not automatic as approval was required from the state Pupil Placement Board.

George Washington Carver Regional High School | Photo Credit: GWCRHS Yearbook

On August 29, 1963, Mary Stevens Jones reported in the Culpeper Star Exponent, “For the first time in history, some local schools will be integrated in respect to race and some classes will be segregated by sex.” Note: Segregating classes by gender was an experiment conducted at the elementary level in the test classes. Interestingly, the content was about the opening of an unremarkable school year not an historical event. Not until the 15th paragraph did Miss Jones add, “Fifteen Negro students have been approved by the State Pupil Placement Board for entrance in nine grades of Culpeper’s previously all-white schools.” Fifteen Black students may have been approved but according to interviews with those who were among the first, only seven could be recalled: four in the high school and three at the two elementary schools. The school busses remained segregated, the Black students were not allowed to participate in sports, and all social activities at the high school were cancelled.

The next two years witnessed a few more transfers, but the dual school system continued. The passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, included the power to withhold Federal funding from public school systems that refused to comply with the mandate to desegregate. On March 7, 1966, the Culpeper County School Board published the federally approved School Desegregation Plan of Culpeper County, including a schedule of implementation and assignment of student placement based on residence. The publication was mandatory and gave notice of instructions for parents as well as declarations of non-discriminatory practices. Implementation for grades 1st – 8th would occur for the 1966-1967 school year and for grades 9th – 12th the following year. With now-integrated school buses and absent incidents, the elementary classes achieved complete desegregation on schedule. However, a new high school was being constructed to accommodate an increased student body and was not ready for the 1967-’68 school year.

George Washington Carver would graduate its last class in June of 1968, and close its doors as an all-Black segregated high school. In the fall of 1968, the first time in its 219-year history, Culpeper County offered only one school system that served all its students.