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"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world"
                    Nelson Mandela
Kevin Brian King
Kevin Brian King




This website commemorates writer,researcher, and devoted son, my brother Kevin Brian King.  



 

Criser High School '59
Criser High School '59
History will treat Criser High School well as we move towards her 60th anniversary. To some it may feel as though the "educational  experiment" that happened "on a hill" in Southtown has been forgotten and in many cases overshadowed by what appears to be the more compelling issues of that day and time. At times there is a screaming desire to gain notice particularly when "school integration" works its way into the general patterns of discussion and thwarts any meaningful dialogue that identifies Criser High as part of this sliver of history and time. It's one thing to discuss,report on,or investigate a subject of importance like Criser High School but when you have actually lived it,it takes on a completely different personna. Every student that has ever attended Criser High School occupies a special place in African American history and are in essence walking history books that have a story to be told. 
When we step back and view Criser High's educational prowess from a much broader perspective she sits well amongst the other substantive moments in Warren County's African American history.
In order to gain a better understanding of how significant her creation impacted our lives let us take a look back into our not so distant past and see how she fares in the black educational historical timeline.The results are mind boggling. African Americans of Warren County Virginia possess an epoch story of monumental proportions just waiting to be tapped!

 
  • Maria Cooper

Belle Aire
Belle Aire

Just off Commerce Avenue along Happy Creek Road sits the antebellum mansion of Belle Aire built by slaveowner,Thomas Buck,built in 1795. A young Maria Cooper first shows up in the will of Thomas Buck which indicates him selling Maria Cooper to his ailing wife Ruhannah. When Ruhannah and Thomas Buck married it was customary for the husband to assume his spouces property. As Ruhannah's health continued to deteriate the will was executed and saw Thomas,give back to his wife as a gift, all the previous slaves she once owned. Ruhannah was planning to liberate these slaves and Maria Cooper was the main source for this legal transaction. Ruhannah had grown very close to Maria Cooper and,as promised,specified in her will that Maria and family should be liberated.
 By 1834 Thomas had died leaving Ruhannah executor and by 1846 had written a will to emancipate her slaves. It stipulated,"Phillip Askins was to be hired out for 1 year and then given the proceeds to help re-establish himself in a free state.Two young men.Charles Jackson William Henry Jackson, were to be manumitted when they reached legal age and likewise were to be given the proceeds from their last year of hire". Maria Cooper and family were given preferential treatment. They were to receive "a new wagon,along with two good horses and related equipment". Ruhannah also set aside eight hundred dollars of her estate for the purchase of a new home,and two hundred was given up front. Not having complete faith in the executors of her will and two months before her death she updated her will and executed a deed of manumission!
 

One of eight letters written by Maria Cooper to the Buck Estate
One of eight letters written by Maria Cooper to the Buck Estate
Slavery existed in Warren County in all of its forms. It has been the proverbial "white elephant in the room" limiting any in depth discussions on slave culture,and with limited historical research or documentation that it existed.
Stories like this gives you some insight into the level of literacy that existed amongst the various slave populations. Maria was fortunate to establish this type of relationship with her owner that eventually resulted in her liberation. Ruhannah took it upon herself to educate Maria in preparation for her eventual manumission. Maria left Front Royal and moved to Washington,Pennsylvania a town known then as a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment and was effectively involved in the "Underground Railroad". Ruhannah Buck passed shortly after Maria's departure. 
Once settled Maria wrote eight or more letters to the two executors of the Buck estate,William Buck and Thomas Ashby, for the remaining $600.00 owed her. In these series of letters we see a hard working woman that was quite learned with exquisite writing skills.Maria Cooper's masterful command of the language and her level of calligraphy is astonishing.So exquisite was her level of writing it superceded that of any of her white contemporaries in Front Royal. Maria is living testimony that a certain segment of the black slave population did develope a certain level of literacy. Whether it was due to the benevolent acts of white owners and then shared amongst brethren or taught covertly in secretive quarters,it existed.
*Virginia Magazine Of History and Biography 2006 175 year Anniversary Edition. Volumn 114 * No. 2., "Freedom Without Independence" Ellen Eslinger DePaul University

After the end of the Civil War and emancipation the 13th,14th,and 15th amendments insured freedom,citizenship,and voting rights for the 4 million former slaves. By 1870 the Virginia Assembly made education compulsory as small schools began to dot the Warren County landscape. From Browntown to Cedarville and beyond a total of 8 grade schools existed in these various newly established African American enclaves. A desire and willingness to "book learn" amongst slaves had manifested into government sanctioned education.The level of excitement in these various black communities must have been estatic.
Was this period the genesis of African American Education in Warren County? If we "Dig A Little Deeper" the answer can be revealed. 

 
 
  • District 1 School - corner of Osage and Laurel
District 1 School  Corner of Osage & Laurel
District 1 School Corner of Osage & Laurel
To date no one knows when,how,or who built Freetown. It has been postulated that it appears around the late 1860's and some say it was established in the 1870's. What we do know is that it was established by Freedmen. Some structured research can and will answer all these questions and more. Its creation was a major social and political leap for former slaves of the county that were transitioning and establishing their own unique communities. Front Royal in the late 1800s was a much smaller township than today. The town line was Prospect Street. Osage,Laurel,and Pine became the named streets of this new African American enclave situated at the foothills of the rising Blue Ridge. The establishment of the District 1 Colored School became the core attraction. Research will reveal it's start-up date but by the late 1800s it sat firmly on the historic corner of Laurel and Osage and became the progressive beacon for education and the path to social mobility.
Nathaniel N. Baker and his Maria Baker were  Pioneers of African American Education in Warren County
Nathaniel N. Baker and his Maria Baker were Pioneers of African American Education in Warren County
The following was published in The Sentinel February 9th 1877:
"Fourth week in January I visited the colored school in the vicinity of Front Royal,conducted by H.J.Allen. I  found 40 scholars strong. There was perfect quiet & submission. I have not discovered better order in my circuit". 

Those were the words of G.E.Roy,Superintendent of Public Schools in Warren County. His visits to the District 1 School at Osage & Laurel were regularly published in The Sentinel. With just a mere 12 years since the end of the Civil War this school had become one of the major nurturing centers for educating this rising African American population of Front Royal. 
In 1887 G. E. Roy administered a $10,965 school budget which presently equates to $227,342 all things considered. A total of 43 public schools were in existence with 8 of them being African American,and a total school population of 1209, 193 of this total were black. Just before the turn of the century the District 1 School comes under the direction of principal,Nathaniel N. Baker. His name surfaces numerous times in school visitation reports along with his wife Maria who also was an instructor at this same school.
In 1963 Criser principal James W. McLendon presents his thesis to obtain his Masters Degree in Education. Entitled,Negro Education in Warren County (1865-1963),he singles out Nathaniel N. Baker and his wife Maria as pioneers of education for establishing the first black school located in Browntown. N.N. Baker's also appears in the Betty Kilby manuscript,"A Stroll Down Freedom Road". Under the  section "The Dawn of The 20th Century" he appears as the instructor for a young Julian Jeffries.
By 1898-99 school visitation reports of the District 1 School by Superintendant G.E. Roy reveals another phenomenon. From the list of student names we see what can be considered the establishment of Front Royal's African American educational tradition. These named students,would take Freetown's tradition of learning and literacy into the 20th century. Through the hallowed doors of the District 1 School these progressive African American students came establishing a long tradition of education under the direction and leadership of principal Nathaniel N. Baker.Their names may not be familiar to some but for many they represent a unique ancestral journey which perseveres to this day.

From December 1898-November 1899 the following student names were published in The Sentinel. These African American scholars were present everyday for class and obtained a grading of 90% or better in their studies.

 
Dec. 1898   Jan. 1899   March 1899 April 1899   Nov. 1899
Nelson Levi   Lizzie Johnson   Mart Lewis Nannie Smith   Daisy Shorts
Ida Beedon   Clara Wanzer   Nelson Levi Nelson Levi   Richard Robinson
Thomas Lewis   John Brannon   Julian Jeffies Ida Beedon   Thomas Lewis
Mat Lewis   Daisy Newman Richard Robinson Mart Lewis   Ida Beedon
Julian Jeffries   Evie Lewis   Nannie Smith Ella Walker   Clara Wanzer
Nannie Smith   Orak Lewis   Ida Beedon Richard Self   Ernest Edmonds
Daisy Shorts       Ella Walker Sadie Mason   Oscar Allen
Leonard Jeffries       Sadie Mason Mary Dean   Alice Wanzer
Richard Robinson       Mary Dean Daisy Shorts   Ernest Clay
James Fry       Rachel Self Andrew Lewis   Richard Puller
Moses Jackson       Ben T. Jackson Harry Lewis   Albert Wanzer
Ernest Fletcher       Lovie Mitchell Richard Robinson James Washington
Huston Cherry       Leonard Jeffries John Lloyd   Lucy Dixon
John Lloyd       Daisy Shorts Ernest Edmonds    
Rachel Self       Richard Puller Julian Jeffries    
Irene Beedon       Mary Fry Minor Newman    
Rettie Thompson       Richard Jenkins Leonard Jeffries    
Joseph Clay       Mary Beedon John Douglas    
Riley Jenkins       James Fry Bessie Douglas    
James Walker       James Washington Mercy Jeffries    
        Jos Clay Irene Beedon    
          Annie Beedon    
          Mary Henry    
          Mary E. Fry    
          Emma Clay    
          Joseph Clay    
          Mary Clay    
          Edward Leeward    
          Oscar Allen    
          James Walker    
          Hugh Williams    

  • Rise of The Jeffries Educational Dynasty
"The paradox of education is precisely this-that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated"   James Baldwin




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Jefferson School   Cifton Forge,Virginia
Jefferson School Cifton Forge,Virginia
There were extraordinary women and men like Nathaniel N. Baker throughout the South and the Shenandoah Valley. They were in essense nation builders burdoned with the monumental task of developing an entire class of learned blacks. This prolific period in Warren County African American history is so significant it deserves major in-depth research to unmask the challenges,obstacles,and achievements of this individual and more.
What was it that caused a young black man from NewHampshire to come to the Shenandoah Valley to teach? By 1900 he resides primarily amongst whites in Cedarville,and by 1910 he appears again in the Loudon County federal census. By 1924 both him and his wife Maria are residents of Alexandria,Virginia where he succombs to a massive stroke. Is Nathaniel N. Baker indeed our long lost pioneer of education? Also by 1924 the District 1 school had come under the direction of a young female principal from Pocohontas Ward 1, Tazewell County Virginia. How she arrives reads like a love story. Her impact still resonates today in the minds of former Jennie Dean,Johnson-Williams,Criser High,and the numerous adult students that benefitted from her outreach in education.
Compulsory education in Virginia,became law in 1870. From this date until 1938 Front Royal high school age students had zero options of getting a diploma unless their parents had the means of sending them away to high school. The commencement of the long Jennie Dean/Manassas Regional tradition did not occur until 1939.
February 6,2003 the Warren Sentinal continues its Black Heritage series with writer Kevin King. He features two black influential women one being Ressie Jeffries,and writes,"At a young age Mrs. Ressie Walker Jeffries attended school in Clifton Forge,Virginia. While enrolled at this school Ressie Walker met a young man from Front Royal by the name of Julian Jeffries and was immediately impressed by him. Julian was the son of Ella Jordan and Burrell Jeffries.........he moves to Clifton Forge in 1911 to take a job at the school and attend classes. It was there he met a very atractive lady named Ressie Walker who immediately captivated him and he pursued her from that point".

 
Mrs. Ressie Jeffries
Mrs. Ressie Jeffries
Mrs Ressie appears in the 1910 Census as a single female living in Pocohontas Ward 1,Tazewell County,Virginia which sits on the Virginia-West Virginia state line. She is a mere 18 years old living with her mother Eliza and her brother Will. The next decenniel year (1920) she has made the transition to Front Royal as a married school teacher and her daughter Madeline is also reflected as her 5 year old child. Based on this data it appears that Julian was quite successful in wooing her and brings her back to Front Royal!
Her interview for the teacher position at the District 1 school has also become part of our local black lore. Kevin writes," When Mrs. Jeffries interviewed for her teaching position in Warren County the interviewer kept his back to her during the entire process. He would not dignify her by talking face to face". In addition to that profound statement he made another concerning Mr. Jeffries. He states,"Once married Julian opened one of the first black businesses in the town,a dry cleaning shop located on Main Street".
Front Royal Businessmen's Parade early 1912. Note the young black youth following the parade.
Front Royal Businessmen's Parade early 1912. Note the young black youth following the parade.
These two italic entries leaped off the page when I read them. A bit of research will reveal the temperament of the country then that would allow a county officer to conduct an interview of this type. The impact on the young and extremely precocious Ressie Jeffries must have been collossal then again maybe not. It could have given her even more reason to pursue a very aggressive campaign to educate.
During Criser High School's operation it was hard to even fathom a black man opening a business on Main Street in the early 60s because of the racially polarized and politically charged climate of the town then. But in the early 1900s Julian did! I would even venture to say there were even others that followed him. Betty Kilby in her manuscript "A Stroll Down Freedom Lane" was quite lucky in capturing this critical point in our history and did so with a live interview with Madeline Jeffries. Madeline recalls,"remembering her Uncle Bird and Aunt Nannie's store next to the Oddfellow's Hall. They use to have hog-killing vats out back,and they butchered hogs for the neighborhood.Their store had everything in it that a family needed. As she walked down to her father's business she passed Charlie Barbour's Resturant, which was located on Church Street alongside Brook's Hotel and Charlie Johnson's Barber Shop.
It appears there were thriving black businesses "On and Off Main" during this period in our local history. In addition there also appears to be a period in our local black history when these established black businesses "On and Off Main" were pressured to move their shops further south into the formal boundaries of Freetown. A comprehensive study of this period is certainly needed to make known the history of these black businesses and their unique business culture. How did these black businesses thrive in the politcal climate of Jim Crow?


 
The racial temperament of the country on the otherhand was completely different from what we would ever experience in our lifetime. It was a political environment where black civil liberties were being eroded by the passage of state-sponsored legislation i.e. poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent the black vote. It was a political environment where we see an increase in the number of atrocities perpetrated against blacks. In major cities like New York, Atlanta, Springfield,Brownsville,Texas race riots occurred. In Tulsa Oklahoma its entire black business district once called "The Black Wall Street" was literally burned to the ground with numerous black casualties. It was a political environment that recorded a total of 3,446 lynchings of black women and men. Our local surrounding communities were not exempt. In Rappahanock,Fauquier,Culpepper, Page,and Warren John Fitzhugh,Arthur Jordan,Allie Thompson, George Henderson,and Mach Neal respectively were lynched. It was also an environment where the woman had not gained the right to vote.
Located on Fillmore Street Harpers Ferry West Virginia
Located on Fillmore Street Harpers Ferry West Virginia
In 1906 just 26 miles northeast of Front Royal W.E.B. Dubois had assembled 26 of the most influential black men to meet on the campus of Storer College in Harpers Ferry to develope strategies to combat these black atrocities. It was the second meeting of the Niagara Movement that eventually evolved into the creation of the National Association for the Advancment of Colored People. It was also a time when the most powerful black man in America was Booker T. Washington, advisor to presidents. The young Ressie Jeffries was a contemporary of these times.
If I had the ability and to travel back in time to witness local black history being made I would set down on the corner of Osage and Laurel to record this crucial period from 1890-1939,and in doing so would capture the genesis and establishment of African American education in Front Royal. I also would witness the transition of the young Ressie Jeffries from teacher to principal of the District 1 School in 1924 just 4 years after the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote.
The Warren County educational landscape in 1924 consisted of 8 one room structures in most cases. Very little information is available regarding these educational nurturing centers and there operation. Howellsville,Cedarville,Riverton,Front Royal,and Browntown were five known locations of the total count. Eight years after assuming the principalship at the District 1 School the young Ressie Jeffries finds herself spearheading a major reallignment of these 8 black schools. A strategic decision was made to create one centralized school for all locations in the county thus closing the 8 one room locations. A very aggresssive campaign ensued to determine where this structure would be built. Based on an interview with George "Beck" Washington by Kevin South Street was one of the locations considered. A parcel on Criser Road became the location of choice.



 
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