This is my Grandma Minnie’s schoolbook. It has survived for more than 110 years. It’s McGuffey’s Eclectic Spelling Book, copyright 1879. You wouldn’t know that unless you looked inside, as its well-worn cover is barely legible. Minnie wrote her name and the date she received it inside: February 1907. She would have been nine years old that year.
Many students’ hands touched this precious textbook. You can see that the spine wore off at some point, and someone–maybe my Grandma–secured it with a strip of plaid cotton cloth and some glue. She had much to protect, because free, public education in the young state of West Virginia had a very shaky start and its future was not guaranteed.
Education for all, regardless of ability to pay, was not a reality for the state’s pupils until after the bloody Civil War in the newborn state of West Virginia and even then, the quest for learning was as steep a climb as an Appalachian Mountain.
Pre-Civil War Virginia Schools
The most famous and influential early proponent of free public schools in Virginia was Thomas Jefferson, and he proposed legislation that would create them in 1779. By 1816, though, Jefferson was discouraged. Most Virginia counties did not want to tax their residents to pay for free schools and the courts, controlled by wealthy men, obstructed their progress, seeing funding for public schools as, in Jefferson’s words, “…a plan to educate the poor at the expense of the rich.”
Virginian legislators did pass the 1810 Literary Fund Act which used proceeds from confiscated and derelict properties seized by the state, along with other fines and penalties, to provide money to educate the poor. However, the law was toothless; the provisions were optional, not mandatory, for those who would create new schools. As the years went on, educational funds were increasingly diverted, to construction of the University of Virginia and public libraries and a school for the “Deaf, Dumb and Blind.”
The Literary Fund created in the minds of many a type of class apartheid. In an 1841 speech to a Clarksburg, VA educational convention, educator and founder of Bethany College Alexander Campbell called the Literary Fund “humiliating.”
“We do not want poor schools for poor scholars, or gratuitous instruction for paupers; but we want schools for all at the expense of all.” –excerpted from West Virginia: A History by Otis K. Rice and Stephen Walter Brown
By 1850, there were 1,300 western Virginia primary schools. The pre-war schools were a mixed bag of subscription schools, those for which local residents contracted with schoolmasters and paid tuition, and home or church-based classes.
In Chapter One of Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story, the Backus home school is described:
“The Backus kitchen always smelled of warm bread and chicken broth. Mr. Backus–Joe Senior–would gather up kitchen chairs and arrange them in two rows near the hearth.
First thing every morning, we would stand next to our chairs and say together, ‘Good morning, Teacher.'”
Education Requires Peace
The seed of West Virginia’s free, public education system was planted in Article Ten of the state’s first constitution, written and ratified in 1863, after the western counties broke away from Virginia and became the nation’s 35th state. A statewide educational system was born amidst the violence of the Civil War, and it was not a smooth delivery.
“War, while it continues, hinders if it does not entirely obstruct intellectual development. A people can only improve in mental culture during periods of peace, for it is then that the arts, science and literature are cultivated, and all progress in that direction must therefore cease, when the masses engage in the stern realities of war, and especially must this be so when their territory is overrun by the marching and counter-marching of devastating armies.” —Virgil Lewis, in a speech to the West Virginia Educational Association, 1902
That war complicated the early West Virginia school system in many ways. Most obviously, the state was the stage for many battles, and between bullets and bushwhackers, many schoolhouses were destroyed.
It was a time too dangerous for anyone to travel, least of all a schoolchild walking between class and home.
To confuse matters, Union West Virginia schools were still connected to Rebel Virginia by a financial umbilical cord. When the first State Superintendent of Free Schools, Dr. William Ryland White, took office in 1864, West Virginia schools were still taking a portion of Virginia Literary funds for their operation (despite the new state’s break from the mother state, a small amount of money continued to flow from Virginia to West Virginia schools, at least until the early 20th Century).
There was also resistance, during and after the war, from state residents who opposed paying taxes to support schools. Some were against supporting any institution in a state they did not believe should exist. Distrust of former Confederates in West Virginia led to fines and other restrictions being placed on those who did not support the federal government during the conflict. In Marion County, for example, fines were collected from rebel citizens to help subsidize that school system’s expenses.
The first Nicholas County, West Virginia School Superintendent, Dr. William Rucker, let his partisan colors fly in his first report to Dr. White:
“Some of the members appointed on the Boards of Education are sympathizers, and several of the trustees selected are rebels. In Jefferson Township there is a large majority of sympathizers, and so far they have persistently voted down, and defeated otherwise, every measure tending to the promotion of education, peace and loyalty…”–from Second Annual Report of the State Superintendent of Free Schools of the State of West Virginia, 1866
The Roane County superintendent’s report included the charge that rebel school trustees would only hire teachers who shared their political views.
No Schools for Newly Freed Black Americans
After the end of the Civil War, learning opportunities for black West Virginians were non-existent. Dr. White believed education for the freed Americans should be a priority, and in his second State Superintendent’s Report of 1866, Dr. White asked the state legislature to find a way to offer education to them. By 1868, the state’s first “colored school” was established in Charleston. “The Charleston School Board furnished $500, the Colored people $200 and the Freedman’s Bureau $500,” according to that report.
West Virginia schools remained segregated by race until the Supreme Court decision of 1954 that declared “separate but equal” education unconstitutional. State Superintendent W.W. Trent left integration of schools to the individual counties. There was, of course, opposition to desegregation and some districts were slow to change.
What a Free West Virginia Education Meant to Minnie
Minnie and her brother and sisters, among the first in the state to attend free public schools, were pupils at McKees Creek School in Nicholas County. Despite the long walks to and from school in sometimes treacherous weather, they valued their chance to learn more about the world. There was no high school in that county at the time, so teenager Minnie moved to nearby Fayette County, boarded with a cousin, and studied elementary education at an Oak Hill high school. She went on to become a West Virginia teacher, later earning a teaching degree from Charleston’s Morris Harvey College (now University of Charleston). Her sister Jen taught high school history for decades at Stonewall Jackson High School in that city.
Despite all the obstacles, the first free schools of West Virginia paid it forward to generations of students through teachers such as these.