A Richmond school was in such poor physical condition, the superintendent ordered it closed because of the threat it posed to children.

It happened last year. But it also happened more than 100 years ago.

Current Superintendent Dana T. Bedden did it most recently, when he shuttered Elkhardt Middle School in February 2015 because of air-quality issues.

But he hardly was the first city school leader to order the closing of a building used primarily, if not exclusively, to educate minority children.

In 1906, the city acquired a number of black schools in an annexation from Henrico County. One, Sidney School, in what is now the Randolph neighborhood, was so shabby that the superintendent called it “a shack” and ordered a new building constructed, according to a historical record maintained by Richmond Public Schools.

Another school acquired in 1906, Newtown School, near the site later used to build Maggie L. Walker High School, was condemned during the 1924-25 school year.

The one constant through the years: The shabbiest of Richmond’s shabby schools have served mostly black children.

That poor black children were forced into substandard school buildings for generations before the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that supposedly equalized public education is no secret.

But in cities such as Richmond, the story continues more than 60 years later.

“If you’re poor and black, it’s the same thing,” said School Board member Kimberly Gray, who attended city schools as a child and who has represented Jackson Ward for nearly eight years. “It’s all about the allocation of resources.”

During the era of open, legal segregation, the allocation was simple.

White students got the newest and best buildings. When those buildings wore out, they were handed down to black students.

In 1874, Superintendent James H. Binford, the namesake of a middle school in the Fan District that’s still open, first suggested converting the all-white Brook Avenue School into a black school.

That didn’t happen until 1886, when Moore Street School opened.

But once it did, the hand-me-downs didn’t stop coming for 75 years.

As late as 1961, the year after Richmond supposedly began integrating its schools — 37 of 23,000 black students attended white schools that year — the city converted what is now Swansboro Elementary from a white school to a black school.

While the days of officially designated black and white schools are long gone, de facto segregation, and its disarming tendency to house poor minority students in subpar facilities, long has been a way of life in Richmond because of Virginia’s odd system of municipal boundaries in which cities and counties are distinct entities.

Other cities struggled with school integration, too, but in places including Louisville, Ky., Nashville, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., city and county school systems were merged. That created large, diverse pools of students.

An attempt to do that in Richmond was blocked in the U.S. Supreme Court after Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a former Richmond School Board chairman, recused himself. The issue died on a 4-4 vote, and the planned consolidation of the Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico school systems never happened.

In the years since, the city school system has suffered decades of declining enrollment, budget battles, and struggles to maintain old buildings.

Fairfield Court Elementary School has flooded, ceiling tiles have fallen on students at Carver Elementary School, and a student was burned several years ago at George Mason Elementary School because a heating pipe was exposed.


In the 1970s, there was a brief moment of hope that integration was going to work in Richmond.

Gray started elementary school in the mid-1970s and went to John B. Cary Elementary, which had been built as an all-white school. In the 1970s, it was labeled a magnet school and attracted a diverse enrollment from the diverse neighborhoods near it.

“I think there was still excitement then that we could go to that school,” she said.

She said the forced integration of the moment allowed the students to “grow and bond together.”

The moment didn’t last long.

The white flight that began in the 1950s after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was in full steam in the suburb-building boom of the 1970s.

Richmond’s population of white students went from about 12,000 to about 17,000 after the city annexed 23 square miles of Chesterfield County in 1970. But the percentage of white students quickly dwindled during the decade.

When Richard C. Hunter was hired as the city’s first black superintendent in 1976, he inherited a school system beginning to show signs of breaking down.

There never has been a watershed moment — the counties never tried to annex parts of Richmond — but the decline has been slow and steady.

Read through decade’s worth of newspapers clippings, and the same themes emerge on a regular basis: tight budgets, under-enrolled schools, calls for consolidation.

There has been hope in recent years, especially after Bedden came to town in 2014. But there also has been more of the same.

A plan for a systemwide facility upgrade was met with great fanfare in 2015, but enthusiasm was tempered by the reality that its price — more than $500 million, fully funded — likely would keep it from being implemented.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones suggested letting voters decide if they were willing to accept a tax increase to pay for the work, but in an election year at the end of his second and last term, the idea didn’t go far, and no substantial funding was added to the school system budget.

But the topic won’t go away soon. Improving the school system, physically and academically, has emerged as an early theme in this year’s races for City Council and the race to replace Jones.

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