Must-See RVA! — Richmond Normal Colored School

Must-See RVA! — Richmond Normal Colored School

A look into the history of Richmond places that are still part of our landscape.

November 2017

AKA, Armstrong High School (2nd location)
21 East Leigh Street
Built, 1876

This is the story of Armstrong High School, kind of a meandering stream with a few twists and turns, plus a bit of drama thrown in for good measure.

(Encyclopedia Virginia) — Twelfth & Leigh Streets — original location

In the aftermath of the Civil War, all the available money floating around was used to rebuild the city center. The Evacuation Fire of 1865 gutted the city’s industrial core, removing one layer of philanthropy. Piling on, the Union limited the number of Southern banks which could lend money, so finding cash for education was tough.

(Library of Congress) — Beers Illustrated Atlas of the Cities of Richmond & Manchester, 1877 — Plate G

Richmond was too poor to educate white children, let alone newly freed slaves. Into this vacuum, Northern enterprises like the Freedman’s Bureau and The Peabody Fund gave money and moral support to Negro education (William & Mary). In 1873, the first secondary school for blacks opened at Twelfth and Leigh with Rabza Morse Manly as principal, a man so respected, that the Armstrong yearbook is still named Rabza in his honor. (Richmond Public Schools)

(Encyclopedia Virginia)

Eventually, they outgrew the space.

The Freedmen’s Bureau gave financial aid to the erection of a school at 12th & Leigh Streets, to be used for both normal and high school classes. This school preceded City-financed secondary education for colored children; it was occupied in April 1873, with Mr. Manly as principal. One Armstrong historian has written that “…a large part of the labor was donated by colored ‘mechanics’ and laborers.” (Richmond Public Schools)

(Library of Congress) — General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, between 1860 & 1870

The building at 12th & Leigh continued in use until condemned for school purposes during the session of 1908-09, at which time the teachers and pupils were moved to Baker School.

In September 1909, the normal and high school programs moved to Leigh School which had been closed as a white school. The high school was then named Armstrong while the normal school was variously referenced as Armstrong High & Training School, Armstrong Normal School, Armstrong High & Normal School, and the Training School. (Richmond Public Schools)

Why Armstrong? It turns out Samuel C. Armstrong, Union general, was also the first principal of the Hampton Institute, today’s Hampton University, a private black school founded to provide education to freedmen.

(Library of Congress) — Booker T. Washington — between 1905 & 1945

One of Armstrong’s Hampton Institute alumni was Booker T. Washington, who eventually applied the lessons learned at Hampton as the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The Leigh Street building was, at one point, named after him.

(VCU) — 1889 Baist Atlas Map of Richmond — Plate 6

That gave the Armstrong name some street cred, but Washington was also the author of the Atlanta Compromise, an agreement with white politicians in the South that blacks would work and submit to white political rule, as long as basic guarantees for education and due process were upheld. Other black leaders, like W.E.B. Du Bois, were not impressed.

November 2017

Armstrong moved to a new facility in 1923, today’s Richmond Alternative School, and then to its current location at 1611 North Thirty-first Street, in 1951.

November 2017

Today, the former school, like so many downtown buildings, has been converted to living space and is now called Washington Plaza.

(Richmond Normal Colored School is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


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