By Chris Teale (Courtesy Photo)
The former site of the second Parker-Gray High School has changed a great deal in the 50 years since its closure as part of the desegregation of Alexandria’s school system, but last week the city’s former blacks-only high school was honored with the unveiling of a new plaque to commemorate where it once stood.
Now the home of Alexandria City Public Schools headquarters on Braddock Place, more than 100 alumni of the school joined Mayor Bill Euille, members of city council and the city school board in an unveiling ceremony.
There had been a plaque on the site in the past, but it was found to contain some incorrect information, highlighted in a post on the website Jaybird’s Jottings by local blogger Jay Roberts. The former director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, Eugene Thompson, wrote in response to Roberts’ post that there were two mistakes on the original plaque.
According to Audrey Davis, the current director of the museum where the Parker-Gray archives are kept, there was an error with the middle initial for former assistant principal John T. Butler, while the middle initials of Sarah A. Gray and John F. Parker, for whom the school was named when it opened in 1920, were missing altogether.
For no charge to the city, the Washington Real Estate Investment Trust agreed to make the new plaque. Davis successfully asked that the memorial mention that Parker-Gray was a segregated school for black students, something that was not included on the original plaque.
ACPS plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the city’s school system later this year. When the Parker-Gray plaque was unveiled, schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley noted how the experiences of the past continue to shape the present and future in the school district.
“As I read a lot of the historical information, there were three things that jumped out at me,” he said. “One of the things that was referenced in the historical brief was that there was a supportive community of families and organizations that provided advocacy, resources and support to keep the school going.
“The second was the determination of the students to rise to the challenges facing them and the perseverance, as many of them traveled miles for an education beyond the eighth grade. It talked about the students getting up and taking the bus and then walking 21 blocks. The third reference was around the dedicated school staff that supported the students and encouraged them. When I thought about those three things, these are the same traits and goals that we continue to embrace today as we strive for excellence and equity in our school division.”
In her remarks, Davis spoke of her aunt’s experience as a second grade schoolteacher in a segregated school and her using the courts to challenge a system that espoused the supposed “separate but equal” mentality. She also emphasized the importance of education and the struggle that people endured to achieve equality.
“Every time African-Americans in this country have fought for right for education, it has been a struggle, but we have persevered because we realise the value of education,” she said. “Your presence here tonight shows that. In an area where a lot of the African-American historical sites, a lot of the oldest sites, are no longer there, it’s important to remember what were landmarks for this community.
“Even though we don’t have a physical Parker-Gray building, we have the legacy. You have all made a difference in your community, and you’re not letting the legacy of Parker-Gray go, and that’s why I think this is so important.”
After the ceremony, Davis expressed the importance of ensuring that sites of black historical significance are not lost as areas change.
“So many African-American sites are lost in this country,” she said. “We are trying to keep this footprint still alive of the people who lived here. There are different uses for some of the buildings, adaptable reuse, but they’re an important part of the community. Just because they’re not the biggest or the most grand or maybe have the oldest pedigree, they still really have history.
“It’s a part of history that doesn’t get discussed much. I think if you’re often for minorities, groups that are low-income, their history isn’t really looked on in the same way, and that’s our job as museum professionals to preserve everyone’s history, that everyone has an equal right in this country to have their history preserved.”
Davis said she was proud to be able to commemorate one of the two Parker-Gray sites, with the first having been at the intersection of Wythe and North Alfred streets, especially as numerous school alumni have volunteered at the Alexandria Black History Museum.
“[The Parker-Gray alumni are] great people, and I think it hurt them when both schools were torn down,” she said. “They’re no longer there, and it’s unfortunate that one of them couldn’t be saved.
“These schools can be preserved, and unfortunately we weren’t able to do that in Alexandria, but we have acknowledged that these schools were here, we have the plaque and we’re hoping to expand the archives and make that more accessible to people. I think it’s really important.”