A legacy of learning
Virginia Randolph's efforts, accomplishments still felt in Henrico
Long before laptops and student achievement were winning accolades and bringing national attention to Henrico schools, an educator of slight build but powerful personality had already put them on the map.
The child of former slaves, Virginia Estelle Randolph was born in Richmond in 1874, and began teaching school in Goochland County at the age of 16. Although she was technically too young to teach, she passed the qualifying test, and an uncle in Goochland agreed to vouch for her. Two years later she began teaching at the Mountain Road School in Henrico, emphasizing practical knowledge in woodworking, sewing, cooking, and gardening -- skills she contended were as important as academics.
"I believe in educating the hands, the eyes, the feet and the soul," Randolph often said. "A child must learn to use his hands. There is no need for a mind if you can't use your hands."
In 1908 Randolph marked the first Arbor Day celebration in Virginia at Mountain Road School, leading her students in the planting of a dozen sycamore trees and naming them for the 12 disciples.
Adept at using what she had on hand for lessons, Randolph taught her pupils to wash and soften feed sacks and turn them into dresses, bed sheets and napkins.
The napkins were then used in lessons on how to set a table and how to use napkins. To teach basket-weaving, she used honeysuckle vines instead of the more expensive reeds. Randolph also opened a small store in her home to sell baked goods and handicrafts made by students, and used the proceeds to improve the school.
When supplies were not on hand, Randolph frequently used her own money to buy them. One month she spent $7.50 of her $25 monthly salary on gravel so that students and buggies could better navigate the path up the muddy hill to school.
Although Randolph's belief that practical skills were as important as academic drew criticism from some parents -- who wanted their children taught only from textbooks -- Henrico's superintendent of schools was impressed.
"She possesses," said Superintendent Jackson Davis, "common sense and tact in an unusual degree, and has the confidence of all who know her." Convinced that Randolph's ideas should be shared with teachers at other Negro schools, Davis successfully applied for a grant from the Jeanes Fund. Founded by Philadelphia Quaker and heiress Anna T. Jeanes, the fund provided specifically for the training of teachers in county or rural school serving southern blacks.
In 1908, Randolph was named the first Jeanes Supervisor Industrial Teacher, and began providing -- on a salary of $40 a month for nine months -- the first formal in-service teacher training for 23 African-American schools in Virginia.
During the next decade, with Randolph supervising a staff of 30 teachers, Henrico became the home of 18 "industrial colored schools." In 1918, the schools enrolled some 514 girls, in addition to 75 women in the adult classes; students cultivated 49 gardens and were encouraged to join canning, poultry and farming clubs.
To offset expenses of the clubs and cost of supplies for the courses, Randolph established the Industrial Exchange on Broad Street and sold products -- which that year included 8,258 quarts of fruits and veggies preserved by students and 5,147 quarts by adults.
Randolph also helped to improve the state curriculum, and her program -- considered fairly revolutionary at the time -- became known as the Henrico Plan.
In 1917 the state superintendent of education reported, "Henrico is known as the home of the industrial work, having had it as an organized plan longer than any of the other counties."
Randolph's notes were sent to county superintendents throughout the South, and her guidelines and teaching techniques were adopted by numerous schools, not only in the South but also in Britain's African colonies.
For her efforts to advance education in Henrico County, Virginia Randolph earns the No. 16 spot on the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant moments in Henrico history.
‘She believed in progress’
Hilda Cosby of Henrico, who took over the role of curator at the Virginia Randolph Museum from her late husband, William Darl Cosby, Sr., never met Randolph.
But her husband graduated from the Virginia Randolph School in 1933 and had a relationship with her -- and his mother was Randolph's good friend.
When her husband served as curator, Hilda Cosby would often tag along, and found herself reading up on Randolph in spare moments. It wasn't long before she became an admirer.
"I was just so impressed with the things she had done and the story she was telling," Cosby says today. "Nothing was holding her back. She just went ahead. She believed in progress."
After reading about Randolph's early years, learning to cook and sew from a mother who had worked in a university professor's household, Cosby theorizes that Randolph learned to value education from that childhood exposure.
"Listen to what she said in 1906," Cosby tells visitors to the museum. "'The moment one stops his own education, he begins to lose the power to educate others,' Cosby says. 'Teach the child that he must never stop trying to learn all the good he can. For whenever you stop, you are standing in the way of progress.'"
Cosby notes that when Randolph first began teaching at the Mountain Road School, only 14 students were enrolled. Told that the school would close if enrollments did not increase, Randolph began encouraging students to bring acquaintances. "By the end of the year," says Cosby, "she had 80-plus students -- and had to start asking for help."
In 1915, the Virginia Randolph Training School opened; before long it was drawing students from surrounding counties that were not progressing at Henrico's rate. Although Randolph took many students from other counties into her home, it soon became necessary to build the Anna T. Jeanes Memorial Dormitory.
Naming a school for Virginia Randolph, Cosby points out, was a momentous event.
"At this particular time in history," she says, "schools were named after men, and only after they died. [This one was named] not only for a lady, but for a Negro lady!"
In 1929 tragedy struck, and two school buildings were destroyed by fire.
Cosby has read an interview of a student who showed up for school to find the burned-out building, and who reported that many students were crying. Virginia Randolph was devastated. As she later told a reporter, "My school burned to the ground . . . I have worked so hard, and just to think I could not save either of the buildings. . . I shall never get over it."
But the buildings were rebuilt with the help of benefactor Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck Company. Ten years later, the school added a home economics cottage.
Randolph retired in 1949, after 57 years as an educator, and died in 1958. At her funeral, D. Tennant Bryan said, "No one person in our generation has done more to bring about good will and sympathetic understanding between the races in Virginia than the late Miss Randolph . . . Virginia Randolph's greatness is not to be measured in the honors that came to her during her life, but rather it is to be found in the boys and girls, men and women who, thanks to her interest and leadership, have attained the better life she, almost alone in her time, foresaw for them."
In 1970, says Cosby, a group of concerned citizens decided, "Virginia Randolph had done too much to go home and just fade out of picture." Now that all the black schools were closed, the citizens led an effort to convert the home economics cottage into a museum, which was later dedicated as a National Historic Landmark.
Today the Virginia Randolph Museum is temporarily closed for renovations and expected to reopen this summer. Among the more interesting museum artifacts that will again be on display when it reopens are the Harmon medal that Randolph won in 1926, and a quilt made by a museum patron listing contributors to the gravel walk project.
Visitors to the museum, says Cosby, are often incredulous to see contributor names stitched in the quilt for what they view as insignificant donation amounts.
"'One dollar!'" she quotes them as exclaiming. "But that was a lot of money back then."
Another museum curiosity is a cake that Randolph received in 1927, baked in the form of a telegram and congratulating her on an appointment to a board. "For some reason she kept that cake," says Cosby, noting that it has somehow survived for 84 years due to being vacuum-sealed and encased in glass.
Visitors to the museum can't get over it, she says. "Is that really a cake?" they ask.
Outside the museum stands a living legacy to Randolph: the row of sycamores that she and her students planted a century ago. Ten of the 12 are still in place, and although many are replacements, three trees are originals. They have been designated as "historic trees," says Cosby, and are known as the Virginia Randolph Sycamores.
Perhaps the most frequent question Cosby hears at the museum, she says, is about Randolph's marital status. And no, she never married.
"But you know, she was a mother to so many children," says Cosby. As Randolph would walk to school from the Yellow Tavern rail stop, the story goes, children would fall in step behind her as if she was a pied piper. And it was not uncommon for her to have up to 12 "guests" living in her home. Asked once to total up the number of students who had stayed with her over the years, Randolph produced a figure of 59.
Cosby feels extremely blessed and privileged, she says, to be the keeper of such a legacy.
"I had never heard of a Jeanes teacher until I came to Henrico County in 1955," she says. "I never dreamed or had any thought that I would become curator of the Virginia Randolph Museum -- or to talk about Anna T. Jeanes all the time!"
Do you know of any living relatives of Virginia Randolph? Hilda Cosby is in the process of tracking down her kin. To provide information, call Kim Sicola of Historic Preservation at 652-3404.
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