In 1964, a full decade following the United States Supreme Court ruling on segregation in public schools as unconstitutional, education was still a black-and- white affair inside McDowell County and much of southern West Virginia.
Whites could still be found attending classes at school buildings with other whites only. Blacks continued in smaller schools, learning from the secondhand books routinely shipped to them from white schools. Each group stuck to its own as the habit of the epoch commanded, walking down their respective, monochromatic hallways in spite of high court rulings to the contrary.
According to West Virginia Division of Culture and History archives, McDowell County was one of seven state counties with lawsuits pending or threatened against it as early as 1956 for non-integration or for moving too slowly toward integration. The other six counties were Summers, Cabell, Raleigh, Harrison, Logan and Mercer.
Communities of small, southern towns remained subdivided — people eating, learning, praying and otherwise congregating in accordance with the socially manufactured, impregnable rules of race.
To those black instructors and students who were part of the informal families forged within the walls of all-black schools, their state-supplied resources may have been scant, but their experience was far from it. And when the aftershock of change that followed the quake of legislation finally settled upon War it was the strength of togetherness as a byproduct of injustice that made the victory of desegregation bittersweet.
What Tazewell, Va., native turned Beckleyan Sheilah Brown and her husband, the Rev. Robert Brown Sr., remember amid the national clamor was their cherished year of teaching at Excelsior High School in War, the Mountain State’s southernmost town, according to War’s welcome sign.
1964-65 was the first year of teaching for the two who would become a couple after meeting as instructors at the all-black school the last year Excelsior’s doors were open. Those young African-American men and women not ready to graduate would be integrated with white students at Big Creek High School the following year.
“I had physiology, American history and physical education,” Brown remembers fondly.
It was incumbent upon staff at black schools to juggle several mortarboards; black schools received a fraction of the supportive resources of white schools and often relied upon the versatility of their skeleton crews and the support of the community to fulfill higher than average expectations.
“We were on the last faculty,” says Sheilah. “There are only four of us faculty from Excelsior still living.”
Opened in 1923 in a mining town where people worked side-by-side, but performed their curricular and extracurricular activities in separate, race-determined groups, War’s Excelsior was one of 38 all-black schools in West Virginia. The Browns describe it as a beautiful place — a red brick exterior with a perfectly manicured campus.
Internally fruitful as well, it excelled at academics and athletics, its reputation standing as a testament to the commitment and pride of educators and students alike.
“It was my first year teaching, and it was a wonderful experience,” Sheilah remembers. “It was a warm, parent-oriented school.”
She describes a sense of pride and community she hasn’t since found, one where the coal business still boomed for men of every color, where families had good incomes and it reflected in the ability of the schools to hold their own. Even if black schools had only secondhand texts to open, to them it didn’t matter. As long as it was a book, there was learning to be done.
Sheilah busied herself teaching classes and coaching the school’s cheerleading team. The experience of being an educator at Excelsior was one of halcyon days.
“There was no such thing as misbehaving at school there. It didn’t exist.
“It was traumatic at graduation,” she recalls. “I remember going with the students. As the graduates passed to turn their gowns in to me after the ceremony, they were bawling.”
Sheilah knew, though it was only for a single year, that she had been a part of something special, the same association tearing at the hearts of her graduating students.
“It was the last time they would be in their school. A vital part of the whole community was gone.”
Excelsior itself had been populated with its share of degreed instructors. As All Black Schools Sports & Academic Hall of Fame (ABSSA) history notes, it “boasted a distinguished faculty of dedicated teachers. Most of them had bachelor’s degrees — many of them had master’s degrees — all were quite qualified, while their white school counterparts were often not required to have such high standards.”
Each fall since 2008, teachers who extracted greatness from black students across the state before integration have been honored as heroes at an ABSSA awards event held at the Charleston Civic Center. The All Black Schools Sports & Academic organization was founded in 2007 by Helen Gillison, a Weirton attorney, as an attempt to preserve the historical integrity of all-black schools, their staffs and their students, and to champion the legacies of former academic and athletic role models who have gone largely unrecognized.
“I love history,” admits Gillison, herself a member of the Dunbar School in Weirton for five years before integration. “When I go back to that period of time and think about all the history that was not preserved, I feel like we have a gap that needs to be closed. What a beautiful way to close it — recording and celebrating the history of the all black schools. It is amazing the accomplishments of those graduates.”
The ABSSA motto is “Verba volent, scripta manent,” a quote from Pliny the Younger, which translates, “Spoken words blow with the wind — but what is written will remain.”
Sheilah and Robert Brown were honored at the fall 2010 ABSSA ceremony, each receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards they now showcase proudly in their Beckley home. Sheilah comments that during the evening, three of her former cheerleaders approached her as successful, educated women.
“They all had their graduate degrees,” she says proudly.
The accolades of their fellow Lifetime Achievement Award winners hailing from Excelsior read as well as any Ivy League success roster: James Morris, who received his education specialist degree at Clemson University and completed postgraduate work at Nova University; James Haulsey, the first African-American director of Facilities for the U.S. Treasury Department, who also received an award for inventing a specialized tool to repair F-105 jets; William Murphy, who recorded and toured as bass player with Isaac Hayes and performed in 1972 when Hayes received a Grammy.
Past ceremony co-hosts have included such headliners as Earl Lloyd, a West Virginia State graduate who was the first black to play in the NBA.
“It was amazing to see how many students from Excelsior had gone on to play professional sports for a school as small,” Sheilah remarks, admitting that she and her husband had to leave the last ABSSA gathering early, but that the alumni and faculty reacquainting themselves did so into the wee hours of the morning.
“It was endearing to have experienced my first year teaching in an all-black school. And now to be remembered and recognized for what we contributed to the students, I feel especially honored.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org