By Taylor Suenkel
Powhatan County, Virginia is a particularly rural jurisdiction in Central Virginia, southwest of Richmond. It was created in 1777 and has since focused on agriculture and forestry, with a heavy emphasis on farming. This is seen in the intended population that this vocational school was built for. In 1930, a year before what was called Pocahontas Training School was initially opened, 20 to 30% of Powhatan County’s total population consisted solely of black farmers. Pocahontas High School is located in Powhatan County, Virginia; and originally served as a vocational “training” school for Powhatan County’s black population beginning in1931. It was then converted into a segregated black high school in 1941 called Pocahontas High School, and then into a middle school in 1969 conveniently named Pocahontas Middle School after desegregation was complete. Recently, in 2021, the middle school was shut down and renovations were performed, and the original building is now called Pocahontas Landmark Center and acts as district office for Powhatan County Public Schools.
During the time of the training school in the 1930s, the two most popular employers and industries in Powhatan County were the lumbering industry and the sawmill industry. As the population of black people surpassed the population of white people, this vocational school for the black community was well overdue.
When the training school became a high school in 1941, the black population in Powhatan County had only decreased by less than 1,000, so the only major demographic change for the school was in age rather than in the target population.
When national desegregation of American schools began in 1954 after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the ratio of white to black people in the county was still relatively 1 to 1, with white people having the simple majority. The black population had stayed relatively stagnant between 1940 and 1950.
By the 1960s, the black population in Powhatan County did not change much. However, the white population grew by almost 1,000 people in the previous decade. This, paired with the increasing amount of pressure to desegregate schools, made it increasingly difficult for black students to attend white schools. The blatant disregard for the federal mandate as well as the Virginia government’s counteractive legislation against desegregation came to a boiling point for black students in Powhatan County in 1962.
Bell v. School Board of Powhatan County
On August 17, 1962, 65 black children filed a class-action lawsuit against the Powhatan County School Board for a refusal to participate in desegregation efforts. These students had submitted applications to transfer from Pocahontas High School to Powhatan High School, the county’s white high school. Even though every application was turned in in an efficient and prompt manner, only three of the applicants received a response. All three students were accepted into Powhatan High School, however, as seen in this timeline of events contextualizing as well as laying out the events that transpired during or immediately after this court case, one of the students was admitted on accident.
The main complaint brought about by the black students was that the Powhatan County School Board placed the burden of desegregation onto the parents of the black children through a Massive Resistance Policy known as the Pupil Placement Act. This law required those who wish to transfer schools to send in an application to the Powhatan County Pupil Placement Board, who would then handpick the school that the student would transfer to if the request for transfer was accepted.
The 65 students stated that the Pupil Placement Act disproportionately impacts black students trying to integrate into white schools because the black students were the only community that would ever need to transfer schools.
The case was ruled in the favor of the black children and the court-ordered Powhatan County to come up with a desegregation plan within 90 days of the ruling. This was not honored, and after this court case took place, 50 to 0 black students were integrated into Powhatan High School, however, the majority of the white students who attended the school fled and enrolled at the Huguenot Academy, a segregated private school in Powhatan County. Despite the Pocahontas High School’s community efforts, anti – desegregation tactics continued to be practiced, and there were subsequent court proceedings for months after the initial ruling disputing technical details in order to delay complete desegregation.
After the court case was settled in 1963, there were talks within and amongst the Powhatan County School Board about lowering the budget for Powhatan High School by 37% as well as allocating more money towards tuition grants for white children that were expected to attend private schools instead of the integrated public schools. There is no official confirmation of these policies being enacted, however, private school attendance in Powhatan County was increasing s drastically that the population of the newly desegregated Powhatan High School dropped almost 50% in Fall 1963.
Desegregation efforts in Powhatan County Public Schools were not completed until 1969 when Pocahontas High School was converted into Pocahontas Middle School to accommodate the growing student population in the fully integrated Powhatan High School.
The official desegregation dates for Powhatan County as well as its neighboring counties Amelia, Goochland, Chesterfield, and Henrico range from 1969 all the way until 1993. In terms of executing federal desegregation orders, according to the website Segregation Now, Powhatan County has yet to comply with their desegregation orders, even in 2021.
Public Response to the Desegregation of Pocahontas High School
On August 29, 1963, the first day of the new school year, two months after the initial Bell v. School Board of Powhatan County ruling, desegregation in Powhatan County was in full swing. The responses from the white students, teachers, and school administrators were evident across every aspect of both public and private education. Powhatan County’s own “White Flight” had arrived in full force, with Powhatan High School’s (the white school) population going from around 700 students in the 1962 – 63 school year to a measly 403 in the 1963 – 64 school year. The white students had abandoned the desegregating public school in favor of the still segregated private school (Farmville Herald, 30 August, 1963).
By September of 1963, around sixty black students had integrated into Powhatan High School. With another court case over black students’ eligibility to attend Powhatan High School, the legal representative for the Powhatan County School Board admits that the “county had made a mistake allowing one of the children to attend either [Pocahontas or Powhatan High ] school but [they] indicated it is never too late to correct a mistake (Farmville Herald, 17 September, 1963).”
In a community meeting held by white patrons and white Powhatan High School teachers, the teachers state, “We do not believe in integration, but we do believe in the preservation of public schools( Farmville Herald, Number 59, 1963),” as a response to calls for Powhatan County to close its public schools and completely privatized their system of education a few days prior.
Historical Marker Significance
Pocahontas High School is an important historical highway marker because it represents, on a very small and local scale, the evolution of the drastic changes in access to free education in the southern United States. In the beginning, education was only available to African Americans for vocational training for select industries. There were very few state-sanctioned educational opportunities for African Americans during the 1930s, most people learned higher education through church or private/semi-private lessons.
In the 1940s, with the conversion of the training school into Pocahontas High School, there was finally widespread access to standardized primary and secondary education for rural black communities. In the 50s and up until the 70s, the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent desegregation of American schools did not come without the tireless advocacy efforts from the Pocahontas High School community to keep pushing for a fully integrated Powhatan County School System. The efforts put forth by the Pocahontas High School students to pursue their right to a better education impacted not only the local Powhatan County community, but also made ripples that motivated and upheld the arguments made against segregation in major civil rights cases such as Griffin v. Prince Edward County as well as Green v. New Kent County.
Pocahontas High School also represents just how much a single community is able to give back to not only their own community but communities around them as well. As we can see with how the original building is being used in 2021 as a landmark and recreation center for the local population, the education aspect still exists despite its change in dedication from focusing solely on educating the next generation to provide services and education that if fit for all ages.
The local community is the backbone to ensuring that everyone receives a proper education that is not only free but is of good quality. As seen through what the Pocahontas High School as a building has experienced, as long as there is an environment that fosters growth and prioritizes learning and development like the building has for almost a century, there will never be a stagnation in the growth of the community itself.
The primary audience for this highway marker is definitely the local Powhatan County population, especially if their families have lived there for multiple generations. At first glance, this high school does not seem to be anything out of the ordinary. It takes a lot of historical research or lived/passed down experiences to fully comprehend why the Virginia Department of Historic Resources decided to create a historical highway marker around this school. As for the secondary audience, anyone who is interested in the intricate details as well as the historical and cultural backgrounds of important Supreme Court cases regarding segregation. Also, anyone who is currently interested in the continued segregation of schools in Virginia, even in 2021. It took 15 years for Pocahontas High School to become fully integrated with the school system, and the immense backlash from the Virginian government as well as the active undermining of black students’ opportunities by the Powhatan County School Board fostered an environment in education throughout Powhatan County, as well as neighboring counties, that enables them to still have de facto segregation or even outright racially segregated schools and communities.
Final Marker Revision
On this site in 1939, Powhatan County built Pocahontas High School for African Americans. After Brown v. Board, as one of only two high schools in the county, Pocahontas High School and its community advocated for county-wide desegregation in Bell v. Powhatan County, which provided momentum for major cases such as Griffin v. Prince Edward County and Green v. New Kent County. The building was renamed Pocahontas Middle School in 1969 after county schools were desegregated until 2020 when it was renovated and turned into Pocahontas Landmark Center and now is a school district office.
Bell v. School Board of Powhatan County, Virginia, 321 F.2d 494 (4th Cir. 1963)
Daugherity, Contributor: Brian J. “Desegregation in Public Schools.” Encyclopedia Virginia, May 17, 1954. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/desegregation-in-public-schools/.
“Farmville Herald, Volume 73, Number 59, 10 May 1963.” Farmville Herald 10 May 1963 – Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive, May 10, 1963. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=TFH19630510.1.1&srpos=25&e=-11-1962–07-1963–en-20–21–txt-txIN-powhatan%2Bschools——-.
“Farmville Herald, Volume 73, Number 83, 2 August 1963.” Farmville Herald 2 August 1963 – Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive, August 2, 1963. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=TFH19630802.1.1&srpos=35&e=-07-1963–01-1964–en-20–21-byDA-txt-txIN-powhatan%2Bschools——-.
“Farmville Herald, Volume 73, Number 91, 30 August 1963.” Farmville Herald 30 August 1963 – Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive, August 30, 1963. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=TFH19630830.1.1&srpos=20&e=-06-1963–12-1963–en-20–1–txt-txIN-powhatan%2Bschools——-.
“Farmville Herald, Volume 73, Number 95, 17 September 1963.” Farmville Herald 17 September 1963 – Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive, September 17, 1963. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=TFH19630917.1.7&e=-06-1963–12-1963–en-20–1–txt-txIN-powhatan%2Bschools——-.
“Green v. County School Board of New Kent County.” Oyez. Accessed November 13, 2021. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1967/695.
Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 377 U.S. 218
Jeff Larson, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Mike Tigas. “Segregation Now.” ProPublica. Accessed November 12, 2021. https://projects.propublica.org/segregation-now/.
“Northern Virginia Sun, Volume 26, Number 229, 2 July 1963.” Northern Virginia Sun 2 July 1963 – Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive, July 2, 1963. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=NVS19630702.1.3&srpos=4&e=-11-1962–07-1963–en-20–1–txt-txIN-powhatan%2Bschools——-.
“Northern Virginia Sun, Volume 26, Number 253, 30 July 1963.” Northern Virginia Sun 30 July 1963 – Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive, July 30, 1963. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=NVS19630730.1.5&srpos=33&e=-07-1963–01-1964–en-20–21-byDA-txt-txIN-powhatan%2Bschools——-.
“THE RICHMOND AND ALLEGHANY RAILROAD.: ALBEMARLE COUNTY, ALLEGHANY COUNTY AMHERST COUNTY APPOMATTOX COUNTY BEDFORD COUNTY BOTETOURT COUNTY BUCKINGHAM COUNTY CAMPBELL COUNTY CUMBERLAND COUNTY FLUVANNA COUNTY GOOCHLAND COUNTY HENRICO COUNTY NELSON COUNTY POWHATAN COUNTY ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY.” ProQuest. Southern Planter and Farmer, October 1881. http://mutex.gmu.edu/login?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fmagazines%2Frichmond-alleghany-railroad%2Fdocview%2F126260328%2Fse-2%3Faccountid.