Randolph, Virginia (1874–1958)

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Randolph, Virginia (1874–1958)

African-American educator and social worker. Name variations: Virginia E. Randolph. Born Virginia Estelle Randolph in Richmond, Virginia, on June 6, 1874 (some sources erroneously cite 1870); died on March 16, 1958; daughter of former slaves Nelson and Sarah Elizabeth Randolph; educated at the Bacon School and the City Normal School in Richmond, Virginia; never married; no children.

The Virginia Randolph Education Centers and the Virginia Randolph Museum in Glen Allen, Virginia, stand as testimony to a remarkably dedicated and innovative educator and social worker who spent nearly 60 years trying to improve the lives of both African-American children and their parents in poverty-stricken Henrico County, Virginia. She was a pioneer of vocational education whose teaching methods were widely adopted, both in America and internationally. Randolph was born in 1874 in Richmond, Virginia, in the early years of Reconstruction, one of four children of Nelson and Sarah Elizabeth Randolph , who were both former slaves. After her father died in her early childhood, her mother struggled to provide an income for the family. Even while Sarah Randolph worked by day as a housekeeper and by night sewing and washing and ironing clothes, she found time to teach her daughter sewing, knitting, and crocheting. Virginia would later use these practical skills as educational methods in schools. Despite her family's poverty and the fact that she began working at age eight, Virginia managed to receive an education, attending the Bacon and the City Normal schools in Richmond.

Randolph began teaching school at age 16, in Goochland County. In 1892, she was transferred to the Mountain Road School in Henrico County. Segregated education was the norm (it would become state law three years later), and in those years the state of Virginia spent only a little over $1 per pupil per year in black schools, compared to $3 and change per pupil in white schools. The one-room Mountain Road School and its surroundings were in extremely poor condition when Randolph first arrived, but through determination and innovation she improved the grounds and the building. She organized a Willing Workers Club to raise money and supplies for the school (and sometimes solicited cast-off materials from white schools), a Patrons' Improvement League, a Sunday School, a Patrons' Day intended to involve parents in their children's education, and a Better Homes campaign to improve the lives and homes of the poverty-stricken families of her students. Randolph stressed not only academics but practical skills including sewing, weaving, woodworking and gardening. This emphasis on vocational training and "learning by doing" was not always appreciated by parents, who once tried to have her removed, but she was resolute in promoting both industrial and academic training. She initiated the first Arbor Day celebration in the state in 1908, when she and her students planted 12 sycamore trees (named for the 12 disciples of Jesus) outside the school; a number of the original trees still stand, and have been named "Notable Trees" of Virginia.

Randolph's innovations had not gone unnoticed by Jackson Davis, superintendent of schools for Henrico County. "Here was a teacher," he once said, "who thought of her work in terms of the welfare of a whole community, and of the school as an agency to help people to live better, to do their work with more skill and intelligence, and to do it in the spirit of neighborliness." Also in 1908, he received funding to name her the first "Jeanes Teacher," charged with spreading her educational methods through black schools in the state. Funded by a $1 million donation from wealthy Quaker philanthropist Anna Thomas Jeanes , a foundation called the Negro Rural School Fund had been organized the previous year to provide educational assistance to poor black schools. Randolph's methods of improving both education and community became the model for all other Jeanes Teachers, who trained teachers throughout counties and states. The program was employed throughout every state in the South and was later used overseas as well, becoming enormously successful in improving vocational education and community life; while the Fund merged with several other similar programs in the late 1930s to become the Southern Education Foundation, Jeanes Teachers continued to assist black schoolchildren and their communities through 1968. (It should be pointed out that the Negro Rural School Fund's original board of trustees, which included Booker T. Washington, George Foster Peabody, and Hollis S. Frissell, deliberately emphasized industrial education as a means of circumventing white suspicion that educating blacks would lead to the horrifying precedent of their entering traditionally white-dominated professions.)

As a Jeanes Teacher, Randolph oversaw 23 rural schools, visiting them regularly to plan improvements and teaching methods. She also organized community programs tailored to the needs of individual communities. Her detailed "Henrico Plan," a record of the changes instituted in these schools, became a blueprint for school systems throughout the South. The Virginia Randolph Training School, the first high school for black students in Henrico County, was built in 1915, beside the Mountain Road School. As its fame grew over the years, Randolph often took into her home students who lived too far away to commute, and later raised funds to build dormitories. After a fire in 1929, the school was rebuilt and named the Virginia Randolph High School, with an enrollment of over 200 students.

Randolph continued working through the 1940s, and died in 1958. The Virginia Randolph High School is now known as the Virginia Randolph Education Centers, the campus of which includes both Randolph's gravesite and a museum dedicated to her life and achievements. In 1976, the museum was designated a National Historic Landmark and a Virginia Historic Landmark. Randolph was inducted into the Virginia Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.

sources and suggested reading:

Bowie, Walter Russell. Women of Light. NY: Harper & Row, 1963.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993.

Jones, Lance G.E. The Jeanes Teacher in the United States, 1908–1933. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.


The Virginia Randolph Museum in Glen Allen, Virginia, includes personal memorabilia and photographs of Randolph.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont

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Randolph, Virginia (1874–1958)

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