Peter G. Murrell, Jr, the late educational psychologist, said: “Education is the practice of assisting people to find agency in, and responsibility for, the struggle for freedom.” The Virginia Interscholastic Association (VIA) embodied that concept. The VIA was an organization of Black high schools created in 1954 before integration by Black principals and administrators with operational funds from the Virginia General Assembly. The organization provided diverse activities such as athletics, arts, academic competitions, and student associations. Virginia State University (VSU) served as the host institution and primary location for athletic events, while Hampton Institute, Virginia Union University, St. Paul’s College, and VSU hosted math and science competitions.
The Story of the VIA website is a collaborative project of Virginia State University (VSU), the VIA Heritage Association (VIAHA), and the Washington, DC, nonprofit organization Teaching for Change. VSU and VIAHA support Teaching for Change’s assertion that “education must encourage academic excellence and embrace crucial skills for progressive social change.” The joint project honors the legacy of the Black students and their teachers, coaches, and mentors who participated in the illustrious Association from 1954-1970. The website, which launched in 2018, contains digitized photos, interviews, and other primary sources, mainly from the VSU Special Collections and Archives.
The VIA included 100 schools across Virginia as a part of the membership. VIA’s principals, teachers and coaches were committed to promoting academic excellence through social and emotional learning, hence they encouraged self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. At its peak, 40,000 students were members of the organization. The names of some member schools commemorate Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Maggie L. Walker, Paul Laurence Dunbar, George Washington Carver, and Ralph Bunche; however, one of the most notable schools was George P. Phenix High School. Hampton Institute student teachers comprised much of the faculty. Phenix also had the only symphonic orchestra among Black high schools in the state. In addition, civil rights leader Charles Sherrod and Mary Jackson, the aerospace engineer portrayed by Janelle Monae in the 2017 film "Hidden Figures," are Phenix alumni.
Three Black professors contributed to the website research, design, and dissemination of information: Drs. Kristal Moore Clemons, Gretchen Generett, and Joshua K. Wright. They presented their findings at the 2019 meetings of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the American Educational Studies Association. Clemons, currently the national director of the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools, was teaching at VSU at the time. In the fall of 2018, her History and Philosophy of Education (EDAS 700) class at Virginia State University (VSU) conducted seven oral histories with former VIA students. The course was offered as part of the Educational Leadership and Administration doctoral program to guide inquiry into the schools’ historical, philosophical, cultural, educational, and social context. Clemons’s students presented their work at the 12th Annual VSU Graduate Research Symposium.
Dr. Generett, the newly appointed dean of education at Duquesne University, was teaching graduate courses at Duquesne at the time. Unlike Clemons, she was working with a predominantly white student body. Students in her class were required to interview two graduates of VIA schools and conduct contextual research on Virginia State University, the Field Service Division, and the Virginia General Assembly when the interviewee was in school. Carol Schoenecker, a student in the class, reflected on her experience.
From a methodological perspective, the VIA project we did in class was my first venture into qualitative inquiry and analysis--which set the stage and framework for my own qualitative research for my dissertation. On a deeper level, having the opportunity to meet Ms. Lois Stith and hear her story about going to a segregated elementary school until third grade, then integrating a new elementary school in fourth grade was incredibly powerful.
Since 2016 the VIA Heritage Association, led by James “Jimmy” Hollins, has held an annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony for its top athletes, coaches, and contributors (non-student athletes who have achieved success in higher education, politics, Hollywood, and other areas). Tennis legend Arthur Ashe, Jr. and 2021 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Bob Dandridge were among the most recent inductees. Clarence Clemons, a college football star best known for his 39-year career as Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band saxophonist, was in the inaugural class. The VIA produced some of the best championship teams, coaches, and athletes. I was teaching at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 2018. With my students, I conducted 14 interviews with Hall of Fame athletes, coaches, and the children of deceased inductees. Notable interviewees were Kevin Lloyd, Walter Bowser, Jerry Venable, Jim Lewis, Marty Miller, and William Lawson, III.
Kevin Lloyd is the son of the late Earl Lloyd, the first Black basketball player to play in an NBA game. “My father was the Jackie Robinson of professional basketball,” said Lloyd. Bowser played quarterback at the University of Minnesota and had a brief stint in the NFL before being appointed as a district court judge in Minnesota. Venable traveled the world as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Lewis, who started the women’s basketball team at George Mason University, was the first head coach of the Washington Mystics WNBA team. Miller is the former men’s head baseball coach and athletics director at Norfolk State University. The university named its baseball field in his honor in 1997. Lawson’s dad, VIA coach William Lawson, Jr., was one of the most successful basketball coaches in the history of the Virginia High School League. He retired from coaching in 1999 after 36 seasons at George Washington Carver (VIA affiliate), Matoaca, and Petersburg High Schools, having compiled 626 wins. He was the coach of the year in Virginia and was nominated for national coach of the year in 1992 and 1997. The Story of the VIA website is a valuable addition to Virginia’s state history and the national Black narrative. Knox Tull, the founder of Jackson and Tull Premier Engineering Solutions, is also a proud graduate of Phenix High School and the visionary behind the website. Tull sums up the VIA’s legacy and the importance of this website in these words:
Everyone knows about the Brown v. Board of Education case, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks. What we do not hear about enough is how, using limited resources under a vicious reign of segregation, Black people continued to work and struggle, encourage and nurture their children to become domestic and global leaders, and literally turn lemons into lemonade.
Dr. Joshua Wright is an associate professor of history at Trinity Washington University.