The History of Ralph Bunche High School
Claudette T. Jordon
Ralph Bunche High School was built in 1949 and has been an important segment of history for King George County, Virginia, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Nation.
King George County is an area that has a history rich with events and situations which have played an integral part in the growth of the United States dating from colonial times, through the civil war era, up through and including the civil rights movement and continuing through today.
The inception of Ralph Bunche High School is steeped in an ugly part of American history such as the Jim Crow era where “Separate but Equal” was the norm. Many people are aware of the Prince Edward County case which was included in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, Kansas that was argued and won by Thurgood Marshall in 1954, but fail to realize that it was not the first case. There were several prior cases with King George and Ralph Bunche High School playing a major role.
King George County along with Gloucester and Surry Counties were the first areas where suits were filed by Negroes to get school facilities equal to those of whites. These were test cases in which the demands of the students were directed by the NAACP. This was the beginning of a fight that would eventually spread over the South. NAACP attorneys thought Virginia, the “Upper South”, was the best place to get started. The entire South was watching to see what would happen. The suit also caught the attention of many Northerners.
The King George students were represented by Attorney Martin A. Martin of Richmond who was assisted by Attorney Spotswood W. Robinson, III of the Richmond based law firm of Hill, Martin and Robinson. Oliver W. Hill, another member of the law firm, was an associate and classmate of Thurgood Marshall who later became the first Black United States Supreme Court Justice. This close association adds to the historical value of Ralph Bunche High School. Attorney Martin filed a suit in the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf the following plaintiffs: James M. Beverly; Matthew L. Bumbry; Irene Dunlop; Melvin & Eva Maiden; Eunice Parker; Addie Scranage; George A. Smith; Henry Smith and Rev. L.B. Smith. The defendants named in the case were: R.E. Owens, School Board of King George County-Chair and members, A.W. Walker; W. Dandridge and T. Benton Gayle, Division Superintendent. The suit became known as “Civil Action 631”. Many inequalities were noted in that suit.
Multiple hearings were held in the Richmond courthouse throughout 1947 and into 1948. Federal District Judge Sterling Hutcheson presided over the case. On July 9, 1948 when it appeared that the court would issue an injunction ordering specific improvements at the King George Training School for Negro students, the defendants and other officials came together to pose an alternative.
King George school officials and supervisors met with their counterparts from the city of Fredericksburg and Stafford County to consider constructing a consolidated school for Negro high school students in Fredericksburg to serve the three localities. Negro parents in King George rejected this plan because of the travel distance.
Civil Action 631 resulted in a July 29, 1948 Federal District Court Order (by Federal Judge Sterling Hutcheson) for equal educational facilities for Negro and white children in King George County. The injunction cited the County for discrimination by providing Negro students inadequate sites and buildings, an unaccredited high school, inferior library and laboratory, as well as no course offerings in typing, chemistry, geometry or biology.
In trying to comply with the Federal District Court Order, a number of improvements were made at the King George Training School for Negro students in preparation for its school year opening on September 8, 1948. Negro leaders from the NAACP, the Virginia Teachers’ Association, the attorneys for the Negro students and parents inspected the improvements and found them to be very unsatisfactory and not in compliance with the court order. No time remained for any additional improvements should the county desire to do so.
On the advice of Attorneys Martin and Robinson, the students in the suit did not register at the inferior King George Training School for Negroes. Instead, accompanied by Attorney Martin and the NAACP State Secretary W. Lester Banks, the students sought admission to the King George High School for white students. Superintendent T. Benton Gayle denied them admission. He cited as his authority section 140 of the Virginia Constitution: “white and colored children shall not be taught in the same school”.
Attorney Martin asked for a citation for contempt of court for the school board and the superintendent. Judge Hutcheson gave the defendants until November 5, 1948 to answer the contempt citation. As a measure to respond to the equalization citation, the county school board voted unanimously to drop physics, geometry, biology and chemistry from the white King George High School curriculum to make it equal to the Negro Training School curriculum. This led to a storm of protests from whites.
The next idea was a special bond election to allow the County to borrow $150,000.00 to construct a new Negro high school. Voters approved the bond issue by a vote of 322 to 245. This new facility was to be built to comply with the school equalization court order.
This unprecedented legal battle in the Federal District Court over the equalization of white and Negro school facilities led to the construction of Ralph Bunche High School for Negro students. The charges of discrimination were eventually dropped but this phase of Negro history in King George County was monumental. This historic building was officially dedicated on September 2, 1949 at a 4:30 P.M. ceremony and so named in honor of Dr. Ralph J. Bunche the first Black Nobel Peace Prize Recipient.
King George County was a significant victory for the NAACP on the road to its landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. Early in the 1950s, the NAACP decided not to return to the courtroom under the “separate but equal banner”. Their future efforts were directed at having “segregation in education” declared unconstitutional, thus ending the era of Jim Crow in America.
King George County was sued again in 1962 for non-compliance to fully integrate the school system. With thirty-two plaintiffs, this action became known as Civil Action 3579. As a result, Ralph Bunche students were allowed to attend the “white” school but many students remained at Ralph Bunche until its eventual closure in 1968.
The preservation of Ralph Bunche High School and its historic significance was the dream of John Stewart (deceased). He was a Ralph Bunche graduate and member of the King George County School Board. Citizens have been working towards the school’s preservation since 1998.
The Ralph Bunche Alumni Association (originally incorporated August 22, 1975) was re-invigorated and with the help of the King George community, has prevailed in getting Ralph Bunche High School designated as a State and National Historic Landmark. We are honored as National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or qualify in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. A dedicatory ceremony was held and the “Historical Designation Plaque” was affixed to the building in May 2007.
Dr. Cristina Turdean and her class from the University of Mary Washington’s Department of Historic Preservation were sought out for their expertise to develop a medium to help tell the story of the role Ralph Bunche High School played in challenging the “Separate but Equal” justification in public school systems and how this ultimately led to the desegregation of schools.
Once Dr. Turdean and her students steeped themselves in the African American history in King George County relative to the struggle for integration and civil rights and the history of Ralph Bunche High School in particular, the die was cast and the results were immeasurable.
The culmination of this effort produced a full-scale public exhibit on April 15, 2015 entitled the “Road to School Desegregation in King George County, VA. Showcased were eight 32 by 89 inches panels on which the Ralph Bunche High School story is told. These panels are made from durable fade resistant vinyl, easy to assemble and retract which also makes them ideal as a traveling exhibit. The creative methods…script, historic accuracy, artistic techniques and means of expression that went into creating those panels are phenomenal.
In terms of bringing the community and region together, Dr. Turdean worked with Scott Jones, Director of the University of Mary Washington’s Dahlgren campus to host the exhibit. The auditorium was packed with local residents, members of the King George Board of Supervisors, the Superintendent and staff of King George Schools, County Department heads, alumni including members from the first Ralph Bunche graduating class as well as the former first Black Mayor of Fredericksburg who attended the unveiling of this impactful and very brilliant exhibit. The panels are on display at the UMW Dahlgren campus when not traveling.
As a direct result of this exhibit, on May 26, 2015, King George County Board Supervisor Chair Ruby Brabo, honored residents and relatives of decedents who were plaintiffs in the 1946 and 1962 court cases that eventually led to integration of schools. Supervisor Brabo stated that before attending the UMW exhibit she hadn’t realized that people she knew were responsible for making such a difference in history. She called them “Heroes Among Us” and presented the Alumni Association with a plaque to commemorate their honor. This plaque will proudly be displayed in the future Ralph Bunche Museum.
This exhibit was so impressive that the Superintendent of King George Schools Dr. Benson commissioned the Alumni Association to have the script and panels made into a video in order to introduce the history of the “Road to School Desegregation in King George County” into the schools’ curricula.
This video, made possible due to the culmination of a wonderful partnership between the Ralph Bunche Alumni Association and King George County Schools, premiered on September 26, 2016 at the University of Mary Washington-Dahlgren Campus. Video narration was provided by Pamela E. Bridgewater (Ret) Former U.S. Ambassador to Benin, Ghana, Jamaica and U.S. Consul General to Durban, South Africa. Dr. Cristina Turdean provided invaluable assistance, materials and assured authentication on the making of the video.
This video now in all King George school libraries, enables teachers to bring local relevance to the history of Ralph Bunche High School, the county of King George and desegregation in general.
The Ralph Bunche Alumni Association is eternally grateful to the Honorable Virginia Congressman, Robert J. Wittman for his unrivaled Extension of Remarks regarding the history and legacy of Ralph Bunche High School that were entered into the U.S. Congressional Record on June 22, 2020.
Concerted efforts remain underway to preserve, honor and celebrate the history of Ralph Bunche High School and how it shaped the hearts and lives of citizens in King George County, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Nation.
(Revised January 26, 2021)
Watch The Road to School Desegregation Documentary
Produced by the Ralph Bunche Alumni Association and King George County School Board, The Road to School Desegregation is a documentary video detailing the struggle for educational equality in King George County, Virginia and across the United States. Deepen your knowledge of this part of our nation’s vital history and support the mission of the Ralph Bunche Alumni Association in the process!
Your contributions and involvement with the Ralph Bunche Alumni Association directly fund historic preservation, community education and the college scholarship award. Find out more about how you can get involved and make an important difference.