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Strasburg's former school for black students remembered

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Marquetta Mitchell of Strasburg stands outside the old Sunset School on Sunset Street in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Sally Voth svoth@nvdaily.com

It may be hard to imagine today, but less than 50 years ago, some of Strasburg's residents were banned from attending local elementary schools.

Until 1965, black children wanting an education had to attend a segregated school -- Sunset Hill School.

This summer, the alumni of Sunset Hill held a reunion commemorating the bonds forged at the tiny two-room schoolhouse.

Resident Marquetta Mitchell, a Sunset Hill alumna, helped organize the gathering, which was held at the town park.

"It was absolutely perfect," she said of the reunion. "It was a perfect day. It was an awesome, awesome experience. I think everyone is saying what I'm saying, that there are no words to describe how beautiful the day was; that the whole event was."

Sunset Hill wasn't the first black school in Strasburg. According to Mitchell's research, Queen Street School was around since at least 1875, and was the first school in town for black youngsters. Mitchell said the school was referred to as "the colored school."

Several years ago, Mitchell was asked to put together an exhibit about the school for the Strasburg Museum.

"The Queen Street School was so special that some black families traveled a long way to move to Strasburg so that their children could go to school there," a history written by Mitchell states. "There weren't many schools for black children in those days, but most black families believed that going to school and getting an education was very, very important."

When the Queen Street School burnt down in 1929, a new school, Sunset Hill, was built.

The new school was for grades 1-7 and consisted of one room, according to the history, with a second classroom and indoor bathrooms added in the 1960s. Most of the teachers for both of the schools came from out of the area, and lived with local black families when school was in session.

Besides one of the park's picnic shelters, four extra tents had to be erected to accommodate everyone at the reunion, Mitchell said. Members of various civic and religious organizations also attended.

"Lots of fellowship and visiting and just reacquainting ourselves with people we hadn't seen since we were kids," Mitchell said. "Several people came up and told their stories and showed their pictures.

"I think the participation and the spirit of the event was way beyond our expectations. I don't have a word to express it. For me as a Christian person, I would say it was the spirit of God. For those who didn't know God, they knew something was present there.

"The spirit of the entire day was just indescribably great and awesome. We're all calling each other and still talking about it."

Maurertown resident Charles Jackson started at Sunset Hill as a first-grader in 1953. Teachers were pretty strict then, handing out paddlings for some misbehavior, he said during a recent phone interview.

"We had a coal stove," Jackson remembered. "We had to take care of that, take turns taking care of that.

"It was fun, but it was learning. I will never forget it."

Special patrol gear allowed some of these students to direct traffic at intersections when school got out, he said. And, Jackson remembered the "outside bathrooms," too.

"It's history," he said of the town school's past. "It should never be forgotten, like a lot of stuff is forgotten. A lot of [young people] don't even know about [segregation]. Nobody talks about it."

The alumni and their families were led in prayer by the Rev. James M. Kilby -- a pioneer of school integration in the region. Kilby was among the first black students to attend Warren County High School in 1959. They won that right thanks to Kilby's late father, James W. Kilby, who fought against his children having to be sent out of Front Royal to complete their educations.

Warren County High School shut down to avoid integration in the wake of a lawsuit filed by James W. Kilby. His son and another young man were the first black graduates of the school in 1961.

Many of James M. Kilby's cousins attended Sunset Hill, he said in a phone interview.

"It's important for people to remember so that they won't repeat it, and plus, the African-American children need to know that it was a struggle to get to go to the same schools as the white students," he said. "It hasn't always been that way, but the younger people don't have a clue of what happened. They should know their history, know where we come from. You got to know where you come from to know where you're going.

"Also, the older generation, we know we've come a long ways, and it has been progress made. We have made progress better for the future generation."

Being a part of why there was no longer a need for black schools makes Kilby "feel good, feel important."

"My dad was [the] one that made Winchester schools integrated, too, without having a whole lot of problems like we did in Warren County and Front Royal," he said. "Winchester definitely learned from my father, all the other surrounding areas, too.

"I love my dad, what he did. He has really made it easy for me to promote his legacy because of knowing and witnessing what he had to go through and how strong and how brave he was. You had to be brave back then. I hope that all people, especially students, continue to move forward and make progress, especially in human relations. We just need to work together as Americans and to build on America and to move forward. We all know how important that education is. A well-educated society helps everybody."

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