Looking for Historic Black Elementary Schools in Continuous Existence Since the 1860s (Need Not Be Still on Original Sites)
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Tuesday, September 21, 2021 07:47 AM

An advocacy group in Bermuda – the West End Warriors for Legacy – has been embroiled all year in trying to convince Bermuda’s Ministry of Education to save a Black school (and site) that was established in 1869 (35 years after Emancipation in the British realms). West End School (WE) was one of the two earliest schools for Black children and the only one in continuous service to today. Logistically and operationally, WE has served as the hub of a vibrant, politically progressive, multi-generational, relatively stable community with reciprocal support of and for Black families and businesses.

Each of Bermuda’s nine parishes has two primary schools. Due to decreasing enrollment and costs, one school in eight of the parishes is now slated to be closed. The Ministry’s vision is of a “new” model wherein each parish will have a primary school hub. What is bizarre, is that this is not new at all for WE – it has already been the parish hub for 15 decades. Moreover, WE has produced leaders in every field who have influenced and advanced the entire island.

However, instead of WE being saved, the government is choosing to uplift and preserve the Somerset Primary school (SP) in that parish. Until the early 1970s when desegregation was forced upon it, SP was known as “the white school”. Black students who did cooking classes at the edge of the site where a preschool now stands were not even permitted to walk on SP’s grass! The SP building was predictably privileged with resources – e.g. when new desks were once budgeted for WE, they were diverted to SP whose cast-offs were delivered to WE.

To add insult to injury, the current SP website actually gives the impression that theirs is a history of happy integration!! Their last 50 years simply should not eclipse WE’s 152 years. Everyone is mystified about why there is even a choice. One suspicion is that the SP trustees are now trying to buy off the government via trust funds left for that school by alumni from segregated times – in a plot to preserve THEIR history / alma mater.

Note for context: Bermuda’s population is uniquely approx. 60% Black and 40% White almost since 1609 – thus can sustain separate, unequal, racialized institutions. (E.g. until 2005 there was still a Black medical association for doctors and a separate white one.)

The young technocrats informing the Ministry of Education’s decision seem to have little appreciation for the value of history. The entire (arguably biased) scoring system to evaluate which schools would be saved is based on physical / material factors alone.

  • History, community ties, legacy etc. were not even considered in their calculus or comparisons. No historians or cultural experts were consulted.
  • They also used misleading, untenable and inconsistent rationales (e.g. that (1) SP is more than an acre larger than WE – when actually the land available for development is only slightly marginally larger; (2) there is a pre-school at the SP site – but this is not a necessary criterion for schools in other parishes that will be saved; (3) inexplicably, SP scored higher on proximity to community services when both are equidistant to most and WE is actually closer to a key youth sporting program.) It goes on and on.
  • Since both buildings would have to be rebuilt whatever the choice, the argument that SP’s building is in better shape – due to its past privileges – is not persuasive. Indeed, saving WE could be deemed a form of Reparations.
  • Finally, the Ministry’s decision document does not factor in the option – really, vision – of keeping all of the schools open in order to create the opportunity for a 1:12 teacher / student ratio. This can readily be paid for by a special government guaranteed bond that would attract local investors. (I am informed that reducing class size from 30 to 20 students shows negligible pedagogical improvement; but reducing to 10 – 12 students shows exponential opportunity for world class / 21st century learning.)
  • The government’s proposal to rename SP adds more insult and window-dressing that cannot excise multi-generational hurt or in any way replicate the belonging, pride, aspirations embedded in WE’s site.

Apologies for this too-long tome. All of the above is to set the context for your assistance. We are wondering if WE may be one of the few elementary schools in continuous use since the 1860s in the Western Hemisphere.

  • In the US, we have information about HBCUs that evolved from schools established in that decade but not about elementary schools.
  • We know that thousands of elementary schools were established by the Freedman’s Bureau during that decade but do not know how many may have survived.
  • It is possible that a few schools established by Catholic Orders at that time have survived. Again, we are trying to source this information.
  • There were schools in Latin America for mixed race children of slave owners in the 1700s and Haiti after 1804. We don’t know if any are in continuous use.  
  • We have not received any responses from our education contacts in the Caribbean but suspect there may be some schools there that have survived.

Am trying to find anyone who would know where to research / find out about elementary and secondary level schools that may still be in existence from the 1860s. (Just ordered The Encyclopedia of African American Education.)

Would be great to be able to argue that WE is significant not only for Bermuda, but also for the education legacy of (at least) the English-speaking Western Hemisphere.

Very much appreciate any contacts / referrals / assistance.”

Thank-you very much for posting and/or any assistance. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.

Be safe in these COVID times.

Kind regards,