Museum tells Virginia county's story of segregated education

Battle of Spotsylvania
Posted at 6:45 PM, Jul 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-30 18:45:10-04

SPOTSYLVANIA, Va. (AP) — There are a few more weeks of summer vacation left and supporters of the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center museum hope that families will bring their children to learn about the history of segregated education in Spotsylvania County.

“This should be on every kids’ list for summer vacation,” said Mo Petway, president of the Spotsylvania NAACP and a local pastor. “This museum is still important to ensure that we remember the John J. Wright School for a long time. This is the history of the people of Spotsylvania County.”

The center, located off Courthouse Road, was built in 1952 and was the only public high school for Black citizens of Spotsylvania. The 1952 building replaced older structures that had been educating Black students since 1913.

First named the Snell Training School, the school was renamed in 1940 for John J. Wright, an education advocate who led the Spotsylvania Sunday School Union—the coalition of 12 African American churches that first organized in 1905 to establish a secondary school for black children.

The last class of high school seniors graduated from John J. Wright in 1968, when Spotsylvania schools were integrated. After integration, the school became an intermediate school serving all students until 2006, when it closed its doors.

Following a renovation, it reopened in 2008 as an educational and cultural center, which houses a museum telling the story of the building and displaying artifacts from a century of education and everyday life in Spotsylvania.

But the museum doesn’t just tell the story of the past. It recently accepted into its collection a proclamation issued this year by the county Board of Supervisors in honor of Juneteenth—a day commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans that was first recognized as a federal holiday last year.

Board of Supervisors member Deborah Frazier, who is the first Black woman elected to the board, visited the museum to read the proclamation and present it to Renee Beverly, chair of the museum’s board of trustees.

“This is about the celebration of Black people in Spotsylvania,” Frazier said. “We cannot forget our history and we cannot let others forget.”

The museum has also premiered an exhibit of art by Carlos Moore, who taught in county schools—including at John J. Wright—for many years.

Moore’s work on display includes paintings and mixed-media sculptures with themes of religion and social justice. There are images of protests from the Civil Rights movement decades ago and the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years, collages made up of pages of hymns from local Black churches and one piece that Moore calls “his baby”—officially named “Sold, 1769.”

The piece is a doll-sized human figure completely wrapped in black canvas and draped in chains. Moore said that as he was making it, he felt like the figure resisted being chained until he used gold necklaces.

“It was like he was telling me, ‘Show me in my majesty,’” Moore said, so the finished piece confronts the viewer with both the inhumanity of the institution of slavery and the humanity of the individual enslaved person.

The goal of the John J. Wright museum is to teach people about the past so that knowledge will inform the future, Beverly said.

That’s also the goal of the John J. Wright Alumni Association, which gathered recently for its first annual reunion since 2019.

Lena Henderson, president of the alumni association, attended John J. Wright in the 1970s, when it was the county’s only intermediate school.

“You got to meet everyone else from the other end of the county,” she said.

John J. Wright was always a place where people from different parts of Spotsylvania came together and forged a path forward, Henderson said.

Today, through the alumni association and the museum, it still is.

“We walk on other people’s shoulders,” Henderson said.