Group Seeks to Preserve Cape Charles Colored School

Rosenwald School at November 19, 2011 dedication of historic marker (ESVA.net photo)

Rosenwald School at November 19, 2011, dedication of historical marker (ESVA.net photo)

March 6, 2013


There are no front yard signs in support of “the other Old School Cape Charles.” However, there is definitely an effort gaining momentum to preserve the history of another Cape Charles former public school building.

This movement has been characterized not by spirited debate and public hearings, but by the same quiet dignity and determination that led to the creation in 1928 of the Cape Charles Colored School.

The school is situated just over the hump from the Historic District to the Bay Creek golf community. It is an unassuming red brick building. Spray paint evidences its brief history as an eel processing plant. The modest structure belies the storied and important history of the school.


Created at a time of racial segregation, the Colored School was a collaborative effort between the black community of Cape Charles, the State of Virginia, and the Julius Rosenwald Fund.

Rosenwald, a philanthropist and co-founder of Sears Roebuck, was inspired by the famed black educator Booker T. Washington to support the building of schools across the rural South for African-American students.

20130306021243The National Trust for Historic Preservation lists Rosenwald schools among the most endangered historic sites in America and considers them “iconic landmarks of African-American history.”

And here we have one in our own little town. As the historical marker adjacent to the school building indicates, the Colored School was the educational, social, and cultural hub of the African-American community in Cape Charles.

In 2009, the Cape Charles Rosenwald School Restoration Initiative, Inc., was formed, with the ultimate goal of acquiring the school building, now in private hands, and restoring it as a museum.

The first meeting of the newly constituted board was held last weekend at First Baptist Church in Cape Charles. Five of the eight board members present attended the Colored School.

The board agreed on an immediate goal to incorporate as a 501(c) charitable and educational entity, which would permit donors to make tax-deductable contributions toward the restoration effort.

A second goal is to locate a repository for artifacts from the school that are being collected and to preserve an oral history from the individuals who either attended or had some other close connection to the school.

In that regard the Restoration Initiative is seeking donations of money, time, resources, or artifacts, as well as persons to provide oral histories.

Interested persons may contact Tevya Griffin at [email protected], Lenora Mitchell at [email protected], or Odelle Collins at [email protected].

It is the hope of the Restoration Initiative that the residents of the Town of Cape Charles can come together to support this effort to preserve an enormously important historical landmark.

Cape Charles

Letters to the Editor are welcome on any subject relevant to Cape Charles, and a diversity of opinions is encouraged. Letters should be original and never submitted elsewhere. Send submissions to [email protected].



8 Responses to “LETTER:
Group Seeks to Preserve Cape Charles Colored School”

  1. Bruce Lindeman on March 6th, 2013 7:01 am

    Excellent news. I wondered why our Rosenwald school has sat languishing for years with seemingly no interest from the community to resurrect it for good/public use. The Rosenwald story is one worth telling and something our little town should collectively embrace as not only part of our town’s history, but that of a larger national story.

    I was intrigued about the school after reading Johnny Sample’s autobiography. Sample was an NFL football player from Cape Charles. In fact, he played on 2 world championship teams, including the very first — with Johnny Unitas and the Colts. Sample tells of walking all the way to that school from town when he was a child. He wasn’t bitter about his experiences there or the fact that he had to endure a seaparate education from his white neighbors. It just seemingly was what it was at the time. Not ideal or even fair, but it beat the alternative of having nowhere to go. That’s the legacy that Julius Rosenwald left us. It’s equally amazing to me, that Sample was raised in this town, went on to great heights professionally, and he’s an almost forgotten name in this town. People know (or knew) Samples Barbershop in town. That was Johnny’s dad’s shop. But, no one seems to know much about his son, the NFL great.

    Anyway, that’s a completely different topic! I’m just glad that folks are embracing the idea of bringing back to life our very own Rosenwald school. That period of our history should not be ignored. Great stuff!

  2. Carolyn M. Wiegner on March 6th, 2013 10:43 am

    i would love to see this school preserved . Southern Living Magazine did an article on the Rosenwald Schools. They were beautifully renovated and made into different venues.

  3. Don Riley on March 6th, 2013 11:45 am

    Isn’t it too bad that the town sold the Rosenwald School years ago when they did not recognize its value. It seems like they are doing the same thing with the Cape Charles School by the park. Isn’t it odd that the African-American people in Cape Charles lived over on the north side of town but their school was built on the south side of town by the dump.

  4. Melvin W. Williams, Jr. CWO USCG(Ret) on March 18th, 2013 11:57 pm

    I am a graduate of what was known to me as the Cape Charles Elementary School and not the Rosenwald School. As a student living on Strawberry Street, I always wondered why I had to attend school over the hump and inhale the toxic coal exhaust being released on us as we crossed over the railroad tracks, or the smoke and smells from the dump. There are stories that need to be told about this school and more so on how it was sold/purchased, and legal issues to be faced after the posting of a sign identifying the school as an Historical Site. There are procedures which could be more of an advantage to this quest, but are being overlooked. This is a ” sleeping giant” issue — wake up. See African Americans and US Coast Guard History — a product of “over the hump” mentality.

  5. Stephen Fox on March 22nd, 2013 9:38 am

    I am writing to address Bruce Lindeman’s comment about Johnny Sample. There are lots of folks around Town and in the County who know about Johnny Sample and his football career and life. Perhaps you did not inquire of the right persons.

  6. Bruce Lindeman on March 23rd, 2013 7:39 am

    Mr. Fox, assume that a lot of people who grew up in and around the area do know the Johnny Sample story, but many who didn’t do not. Regardless, what I believe to be true is that the Town hasn’t done enough to celebrate his career. Having been a player on one world championship, playing alongside Johnny Unitas (before it was called the Super Bowl), and then winng a second championship with the Jets years later is quite an accomplishment. His story of how he was educated here during segregation and overcame the odds and played football in college up the road – and then to be drafted in to the NFL is quite a story. Yet, it’s a story and a life that isn’t celebrated here – especially for an African American kid born and raised here in Cape Charles. That was the key point I was trying to make in my original post.

  7. Melvin W. Williams, Jr. CWO, USCG(Ret) on April 1st, 2013 9:41 pm

    Johnny “Happy” Sample utilized his sports talent to escape the segregation that existed in the Town of Cape Charles. Even the more affluent black familes were under this bondage of having to stay in their place and or catering to their “own kind.”

    There were no black businesses in the Central Business District, but there were two neigborhood “Mom and Pop” stores owned by Afro-Americans. These businesses, the black teachers like Ms. Alice Ames, and the black churches were major supporters in education for students attending school “over the hump.”

    This suport was needed to overcome the distastful conditions that all of us who attended that school hated but had to endure, including “Happy.”

    The smoke of burning garbage and smoke from the dump, the outhouses located in back of the school, the exhaust black smoke and soot from the trains passing under the catwalk portion of the hump that we had to walk over in order to get to school. Oh yes, I can’t leave out the horrible odor coming from the fish dock, or the secondhand books we had to use.

    The goal for most of the Cape Charles Elementary (Rosenwald? I was never told that this was the name) School was to graduate and leave town. Only one homecoming celebration for Johnny “Happy”? Ask the ones or the family members of those who ran the town when he reached his fame, not only then but those in place now. The town has had numerous events and celebrations since “Happy.”

    I am a product of that school over the Hump, thanks to certain members in the black community and to my beloved mom, Mrs. Thelma B. Williams-1994. (RIP)

    See African Americans and/in U.S. Coast Guard History.

  8. Melvin W. Williams, Jr. CWO, USCG(Ret) on April 3rd, 2013 10:08 pm

    Look at the upcoming events in Cape Charles. Look who’s sponsoring them. Is there any event by these persons to raise the awareness of this school or even celebrate its history? I would appreciate any response by readers.