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Living Legacy

Several generations of students remember Parker-Gray High School.

Parker-Gray High School is not around anymore. All that's left of the old, blacks-only school is a plaque near the Braddock Street Metro Station. But for the class of 1965, the school's last group of seniors, Parker-Gray will live on through faded photographs, remembrances of things past and friendships that have lasted through the decades. At the 40th reunion of Parker-Gray's class of 1965, former students and teachers of the school came back to Alexandria to mingle with old friends and remember segregated life in the city.

"It was a very close-knit community, and you felt like everybody knew who you were and you knew everybody else," said Sharon Burke Musa, attending the weekend kickoff event at the Black History Museum last Friday. "Many of the teachers were no-nonsense. Today, you would call them strict. But they knew their subjects very well, and they were committed to providing the best possible education for the students."

Musa remembered her time at Parker-Gray as a shared experience, an era when parents were involved in every aspect of a child's life and teachers knew parents by name. Adults would act as mentors to youngsters, and parents would hear about a son or daughter's misbehavior. The village would raise the children.

"That's a kind of involvement that doesn't exist anymore, which is a shame," she said. "But for us, that connection is still there. You can feel it in this room."

As former students arrived at the museum, greetings were exchanged and memories were traded. Old friends hugged, and spouses were introduced over small plates of fruit and cheese. The reunion was an opportunity to reminisce about segregated life in Alexandria, a time when blacks and whites lived separate and unequal lives.

FOR BLACKS IN ALEXANDRIA, public education began shortly after the Civil War. In 1867, the local Freedman's Bureau worked with the First Free School Society of Alexandria to plan the construction of two new schools. Col. S.P. Lee planned construction of Snowden School for Boys in the 600 block of South Pitt Street and Hallowell School for Girls in the 400 block of North Alfred.

In 1920, the two schools were consolidated. Snowden Principal John Parker and Hallowell Principal Sarah Gray worked with city officials to create the Parker-Gray School for Girls and Boys, which offered grades 1 through 8. The city did not offer a high school education to blacks until 1932.

Mabel Porter Price, who attended the reunion last week, was at Parker-Gray for the first day of classes in 1920. She was 12-years-old when the doors of the new school opened in the 900 block of Wythe Street. At the reunion, she remembered what it was like to wake up every morning before the sun came up to work for a white family on Prince Street.

Before arriving at school, she would pick up their mail, cook breakfast, serve coffee and clean up before walking to Parker-Gray to arrive by 9 a.m. After school, she would return to Prince Street to help prepare and serve supper before arriving home to do her lessons.

"They paid me $2.50 a week," she said. "And after all of that, I was still on the honor roll."

When she finished the 8th grade, she went to work full-time. Her schooling was over because the city of Alexandria did not offer high school classes for blacks. Her mother's education at the Hallowell School for Girls also ended at grade 8. But when Price's son went to Parker-Gray, things had changed. When he graduated in 1941, the school had been certified by the Southern Association for Accreditation.

"I came back to Parker-Gray as a teacher in 1946," said Charles Price. "But it was difficult because the teachers still thought of me as a student."

PRICE REMEMBERED Alexandria as a place where whites and blacks lived in different worlds — one black and one white. Blacks entered public buildings through back doors, used separate water fountains and were forbidden from eating in restaurants on King Street. Unquestioning acquiescence was required to perpetuate the rigid social order of the day.

"Everything was fine, as long as you knew your place," he said. "There was a white water fountain and a black water fountain, and that's just the way things were."

He remembered going to G.C. Murphy's five-and-dime at the corner of Washington Street and King Street with his mother and wondering about the white water fountain. One day, his curiosity got the better of him and he drank from the white fountain.

"I wanted to know if the water tasted different," he said. "It was the same water, just a separate fountain."

Emily Butler Bullock also graduated in 1941, and she remembered the unquestioning acceptance of segregated life in Alexandria.

"Our minds were conditioned," she said, noting that she was forbidden from visiting the whites-only library on Queen Street. "I had to walk 12 blocks to get to school, and I walked right by several white schools on my way. We didn't have buses back then. We were conditioned not to question these things."

But the separate education that was offered to blacks in Alexandria was not equal.

"We never had a new book — never," she said. "We always got the old books that were no longer used by the white students. I didn't even know what a new book looked like."

IN 1950, A NEW BUILDING for Parker-Gray was built in the 1200 block of Madison Street. The old building on Madison Street had become cramped, and school administrators had moved some classes into the basement. Washington lawyer Charles Houston worked with the local NAACP to persuade School Board members to build a new school. As a result, the old building on Wythe Street became an elementary school. It was named after Houston, who died later that year.

Four years later, Houston's protégé, Thurgood Marshall, argued Brown v. Board of Education before the United States Supreme Court. Although the court ruled in 1954 that racial segregation in public education violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, separate and unequal education persisted in Alexandria for more than a decade.

In 1965, Parker-Gray closed its doors. Segregated schools became a relic of the past.