Scrabble captures the school’s past to teach it

Former student Gladys Virginia Harrison at Scrabble's videotaped interview session. Photo by Susanna Spencer.
Former student Gladys Virginia Harrison at Scrabble’s videotaped interview session. Photo by Susanna Spencer.

When Gladys Virginia Harrison went to Scrabble School as a little girl, she and her sister Louise walked to the school from their family farm in Woodville every day after milking the cows in the morning. “There were no buses like they have now,” she recalled on a recent visit back to Scrabble from her home in Culpeper.

Gladys, now Gladys Harrison Gourdine, is 90 years old. Quiet, composed, and dignified in an animal print dress, a black sweater, and a black hat with a large silver cloth flower attached, she was at Scrabble being interviewed by Aldrich Boone, Rappahannock schools superintendent, as part of an ongoing project to record and preserve the memories of alumni from Scrabble and other local Rosenwald schools.

Sitting in the restored single-room schoolhouse brought back memories of the old days, Gourdine said, when its “A side” was for the older grades and its “B side” for younger children. She said her Scrabble teachers instilled respect and a lifelong determination to learn and to succeed. Her son and her daughter, sitting nearby as she answered Boone’s questions, smiled and nodded in agreement.

Built in 1922, Scrabble School was the first of four blacks-only Rosenwald schools in Rappahannock County before Virginia schools were desegregated. The others were in Amissville, Flint Hill and Washington. Supported by Booker T. Washington and Sears Roebuck cofounder Julius Rosenwald, hundreds of Rosenwald Schools were built throughout the South to replace decrepit African-American schools that were sometimes little more than cabins.

Scrabble School closed after the 1968 school year, the only year white students attended. But after extensive renovations, it opened in 2009 as the Rappahannock Senior Center at Scrabble School and the Rappahannock African-American Heritage Center.

Susanna Spencer is the Scrabble School Preservation Foundation (SSPF) program director overseeing a combined audio-visual preservation project and educational effort aimed at elementary students. “This is exciting because right now this history really is in danger of being forgotten,” she says. “The oral histories are providing us with the content but the videos will provide the means for passing it on.”

Two grants awarded in March are funding the videotaping, the development of web-based interactive educational materials and an expansion of the center’s website. The Virginia Foundation for History awarded the center $6,000; another $1,000 came from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The interactive educational materials should be ready this fall and will go onto an expanded website some time after that, Spencer said.

On the left, Fay Nicholas with her grandson Ian and husband Freddie in back. On the right, sisters Virginia Bailey Brown (left) and Marie Bailey Davis sit in front of school superintendent Aldridge Boone. Photo by Lance Warren.
On the left, Fay Nicholas with her grandson Ian and husband Freddie in back. On the right, sisters Virginia Bailey Brown (left) and Marie Bailey Davis sit in front of school superintendent Aldridge Boone. Photo by Lance Warren.

Securing the grants was a “very competitive” process,” Spencer explained. “This is our fourth Virginia Foundation for Humanities grant. VFH underwrote the original 2006 filming and then awarded Scrabble two more grants to make the historical exhibit” at the school. Scrabble’s most recent grant was the only VFH grant request awarded full funding during the last two application cycles, Spencer said, “perhaps because we have a track record and have shown we can use their money wisely, doing quality work on a shoestring.”

SSPF has hired Sharon Mohrman to develop the web-based interactive materials.   The gifted resources teacher at Orange Elementary School, Sharon is part of the “America on the World Stage” project.

The Scrabble materials will be designed for grades kindergarten through four, Mohrman said. Taught with hands-on opportunities, she’s found, young children “love the past, love the history.” Pictures of old report cards, photographs, the interviews to watch – and trips to the school itself – will bring the story of the schools alive.

Spencer is excited about the educational role Scrabble can play. “We’d like to have a docent program and have classes come to Scrabble on field trips. There are more than 50,000 students under 18 in nearby counties – so that’s a lot of prospective field trips!

“We still need additional funds to keep this going,” Spencer said. “It’s hard to find support.” Scrabble has an ongoing campaign to raise funds but needs a lot more, she said.

Last Saturday (July 14), Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers, Virginia natives now operating Field Studio in New York (, filmed Boone’s interviews with Gourdine, sisters Marie Bailey Davis and Virginia Bailey Brown, and Fay and Freddie Nicholas. Fay Nicholas attended the Rosenwald school in Amissville and then taught there and at the Rosenwald school in Washington. Freddie Nicholas taught at George Washington Carver Regional High School in Culpeper, which served African-American students from four counties, including Rappahannock.

In 2009 and 2010, Warren edited raw footage from Scrabble interviews conducted in 2006 by the Virginia Center for Digital History. Field Studio will also edit hours of Scrabble interviews conducted last spring by Rappahannock High School teacher Jan McKinney and her English students, Spencer said.

Spencer has a background in fundraising, a master’s degree in museum studies and an undergraduate degree in education and history. The librarian at Wakefield Country Day School, she also has a degree in museum administration.

“There were more than 5,000 Rosenwald Schools built but very few of them even exist today, and some that do still exist have been converted to private use, so very few have been restored,” Spencer said. “And very few of those have an exhibit or an educational program. So somehow this teeny, tiny school in Rappahannock County, Va., is in the forefront of all this historical preservation and education.”