Early Schools

Norfolk's Early Public School System

Norfolk, Virginia was founded in 1682, seventy five years after the first English colonists landed at Jamestown. Blessed with a deep natural harbor and easy access to the sea, the town grew into one of the most active maritime ports in British North America. Although Norfolk was burned during the American Revolution, and was again the scene of conflict during the Civil War, the city remade itself in the twentieth century, becoming one of America's pre-eminent centers of international trade and defense.1

Public education in Norfolk has been a source of conflict throughout the city's history. Although local community leaders worked to establish free public schools as early as 1761, it was not until 1853 that the City Council determined to set up a permanent public school system. After four years of intense work, Ashland Hall, the first white public school in Norfolk, was established in 1857. Then, the following year, Superintendent Thomas Tabb and an elected school board established four new public schools, giving Norfolk one of the first public school systems in the state of Virginia.2

Of course, Norfolk's schools functioned under Virginia law, which prohibited the education of black children. This fact had been clearly established in Norfolk only a few years earlier, when Margaret Douglass, a white woman from South Carolina , was imprisoned for a month in the city jail for teaching free black children to read the Bible. Douglass was apparently unaware that, after Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, Virginia outlawed not only the teaching of slaves, but the teaching of any black person to read or write.3

The Civil War changed this. When Norfolk fell to the Union in May, 1862, Northern generals closed the city's public schools to white children and opened them to blacks. At the close of the war, however, the city government regained control of the buildings and returned the schools to the white community. No public schools were opened for black children until 1871, when Virginia's state government opened its Department of Education, and the Norfolk City Council established a segregated black public school in each of the city's four wards. The black schools were then incorporated into the existing white establishment, and they were governed by one superintendent as part of the Norfolk Public School system.4

Between 1871, when the Norfolk school system came under the formal control of the Virginia Department of Education, and 1939, when the first of our educational battles began, Norfolk underwent a terrific transformation. The city's population exploded, from roughly 20,000 in 1870 to almost 144,000 in 1940. Immigration, urbanization, two world wars and the establishment of the Norfolk Navy Yard helped to propel the city's growth.5

As Norfolk grew, so did its public school system. By 1896, twenty-five years after the district was established, the city had twelve schools, including one high school, with sixty-two teachers, and a paid full-time superintendent, Richard A. Dobie.6 Yet, Norfolk's white city leaders had not waited on the Supreme Court's Plessy decision to segregate their schools, which were anything but equal. Although white and black students made up almost equal proportions of the 3,000 students enrolled in 1896, white children attended ten of the city's schools with fifty-one teachers, while black students attended only two of the city's schools with eleven teachers.7 The student-teacher ratio was thus much higher for blacks than it was for whites -- figures for 1886 place the ratio at 74 students per black teacher, and 42 children per white teacher.8

As the Norfolk school system developed, the inequities between white and black schools became more pronounced. Although public schools made great strides in the city, with “electric lights (1899), telephones (1901), school libraries (1902), art courses (1904), physical education classes (1908), high school athletics (1909), lunch programs (1911), free textbooks (1915), and kindergarten (1919),” these signs of progress were always more abundant in white schools.9 Despite the fact that the first five decades of the twentieth century saw an increase in support for public schools, state and local funding actually expanded the disparity between white and black schools. In 1925, for instance, “state and local governments [in Virginia] spent an average of $40.27 per white pupil and only $10.47 per black student.”10 This terrible gap in per pupil expenditure meant that white students attended newer facilities, read from better books, benefited from a lower student-teacher ratio, attended longer school sessions, experienced less classroom crowding, and had better lab, library, and gymnasium equipment.

This was not the end of the inequality, though. In Norfolk, as in the rest of the South, black teachers faced the same sort of discrimination as their students, which resulted in the first major educational battle in Norfolk: the struggle to enforce the “separate but equal” doctrine for teacher pay.


1. For general coverage of Norfolk see Thomas C. Parramore, Peter C. Stewart, and Tommy L. Bogger, Norfolk: The First Four Centuries (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1994).

2. Henry S. Rorer, History of Norfolk Public Schools: 1681-1968 (Norfolk, Virginia: Henry S. Rorer, 1968), 11-15. See also, Gary Ruegsegger, The History of Norfolk Public Schools: 1681-2000 (Norfolk , Virginia : Norfolk Public Schools, 2000), 7-8.

3. Tommy Bogger, Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, 1790-1860: The Darker Side of Freedom (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 140-143.

4. Rorer, History of Norfolk Public Schools, 25-31. See also, Ruegsegger, The History of Norfolk Public Schools, 9-18. In 1867, the Norfolk Journal proposed that the city begin educating its African American children. The paper was not bold enough to suggest that white and black children attend the same schools, but instead argued that separate schools should be established for the African American students in the community. “If we fail to move, others will take the initiative, and we shall reap a plentiful crop of tears,” the paper said. Establishing African American schools was “a wise measure,” the Journal argued, because “educating the Negro . . . [would] improve his condition . . . [and] make him a better member of society.” This statement reveals much about the racist underpinnings of late nineteenth century Virginian society, and it goes a long way in explaining why even moderate whites in Norfolk could not get the city to establish black public schools during Reconstruction. Although Norfolk 's white leaders failed to establish any public schools for black children in the years immediately following the Civil War, the American Missionary Society stepped in and filled the void. Four private church-related schools were established in 1867 for Norfolk 's black community. These schools operated independently of the city's public system until 1871. See Rorer, History of Norfolk Public Schools, 25-31.

5. For information on Norfolk during these years see: Parramore, Norfolk: The First Four Centuries, chapters 17-23.

6. Rorer, History of Norfolk Public Schools, 26.

7. Richard A. Dobie's Superintendent's Report, 1896. Quoted in Rorer, History of Norfolk Public Schools, 27.

8. Lewis, In Their Own Interests , 24. See also: Rorer, History of Norfolk Public Schools, for student enrollment in 1886: 1180 whites and 875 blacks.

9. Rorer, History of Norfolk Public Schools, 31. See also, Ruegsegger, The History of Norfolk Public Schools, 30.

10. Smith, Managing White Supremacy , 135.






Benjamin Latrobe, Watercolor of
the City of Norfolk 1786
full size

J.H. Smythe School, one of Norfolk's original four Schools, 1858 | full size


Margaret Douglass's
Personal Narrative | full size

Norfolk Naval Yard,
December 1864 | full size


Norfolk's First High
School, 1894 | full size


John T. West
School, 1922 |
full size


Nursery School on Chapel Street,
July 7, 1939 |
full size


Lee School, April 26, 1946 | full size