The Snowden School and the Hallowell School for Girls, the first public schools for black children in the City of Alexandria, opened 100 years ago, on Sept. 6, 1920. They were later consolidated into the Parker-Gray School.
Located on the site of the current Charles Houston Recreation Center on Wythe Street, Parker-Gray was for children in grades one through eight. It had nine teachers and the barest necessities. Students did not have the same schoolbooks as their counterparts in all white schools. In fact,
they were lucky to have any schoolbooks, chalk or chalk boards at all.
Members of the community provided chairs and basic equipment, and any African American student who wanted to continue their education past eighth grade had to travel to Washington D.C. and then walk 21 blocks to Dunbar or Armstrong high schools.
This is more than the story of a building. It is the story of children who overcame adversity, racism, bigotry and neglect; many went on to become champions for equity and civil rights, bequeathing a legacy that we are trying to live up to today.
Ferdinand T. Day went on to become a civil rights icon, education pioneer and trailblazer, and his name is now emblazoned on one of our elementary schools. Day became the first African American elected chair of a public school board in Virginia, just 10 years after the Brown versus Board of Education decision.
Day was one of those Parker-Gray students who had to walk miles through D.C. every day to attend high school. It was through the Secret Seven, a group Day was part of that led the fight for civil rights, that Alexandria slowly began to change.
This week I talked with Robert Dawkins, a trailblazer who started Alexandria’s African American Hall of Fame. His brother, Dr. Arthur Dawkins, taught jazz at Howard University thanks to the support of Edward Lloyd Patterson, the music teacher and assistant principal of Parker-Gray High School who refused to give up on any student.
It is our duty to carry on their legacy. It is our duty to refuse to give up on any student and continue the legacy of fighting for an equitable education for all.
In order to make equity a pillar in our community, we must remember our history and be willing to acknowledge the good, bad and ugly. We need to acknowledge that some of the first African slaves in Virginia landed right here in Alexandria. We need to recognize that we had one of the largest slave trades right here on Duke Street. And we need to own our racist past that forced African American children to have to travel into D.C. and walk miles to get an education past eighth grade.
We also need to acknowledge that we had a superintendent named Thomas Chambliss (T.C.) Williams, who believed that our schools were better segregated and opposed school integration during his 30-year tenure.
We also need to acknowledge the irony that the story for which our high school is known across the United States is one of desegregation, and that we celebrate our diversity with students who hail from 120 different countries and speak 121 different languages, all studying under one roof.
Black History Month reminds us that the fight for equity is far from over. Neither our Advanced Placement classes nor the Chance for Change Academy reflect the demographics of our school division. We, unfortunately, accept that modern day segregation still exists and our work is not done.
“When we know our history, we know our greatness,” a Parker-Gray alumni told me. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also said, “If we don’t know our history, then we are bound to repeat it. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
As we approach the 100th anniversary of Parker-Gray, let us embrace our African American history and vow to do better. Let us promise to unapologetically tear down barriers that prevent all of our young people from being the best they can possibly be. And let us take a stand, collaborate and, most of all, support each other in this work.
This month, I pay tribute to all the alumni and teachers of the Parker-Gray School who went before us to lay a path that we all, as citizens of Alexandria, have a duty to continue and see fulfilled.
The writer is superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools.