Integration of Garnet High School, Charleston, West Virginia

The Effects of Integration on Garnet High School and the African-American Community in Charleston, West Virginia

By Mary Harper

At its peak around 1950, the public school system for blacks in West Virginia was educating more than 19,000 students from elementary school up through high school. This system, in addition to its primary educational efforts, offered special needs assistance for the deaf and blind, and sponsored many extracurricular activities including athletic teams, bands, choirs, and drama clubs. Such activities helped tie the African-American community together statewide.1 A staple member of this community was Garnet High School. Among the earliest black high schools established in the state, this institution served as a central part of the African-American community in Charleston, West Virginia. When the school was eventually closed due to integration in 1956 it greatly affected Charleston’s African-American community, and some say even destroyed it. The process of integration in Kanawha County was a complex struggle between the school board and the community.2

Garnet High School was established in 1900 when a group of twelve African-American students in Kanawha County passed an entrance examination for high school level course work. Garnet was named after Henry Highland Garnet, a former slave that became the United States’ consul to Liberia. The first principal of the school was Charles Wesley Boyd who served from the school’s founding in 1900 until 1908 and the School graduated its first class of only one student in 1904. 3 In the fall of 1908 Mr. John Francis James Clark, Sr. became the second principal of Garnet School which was at the time about fifty students strong, educating students for grades 1-12, and unclassified. Only a year after Principal Clark’s arrival, a separate high school building was constructed for Garnet. This made Garnet the first African-American school in the state to have a separate high school building. Garnet High School grew so fast that soon the high school building was not large enough for both the junior and senior high classes. In 1927 a separate senior high school building was established and the former combined high school was renamed Boyd Junior High School after the first principal of the school Charles Wesley Boyd. The corner of Shrewsbury and Lewis Streets was the location of the new Garnet High School situated in the heart of the African-American neighborhood in Charleston. During the school’s history, the student body was responsible for writing and publishing several school newspapers: The Echo, Skule Daze, The Garnet Herald, and The Eye. The Eye was the longest running school newspaper, beginning in 1939 and running until the school’s closing in 1956.4

In the time that Mr. John Francis James Clark was principal, Garnet was classified as a first-class high school. Also, the school’s enrollment grew to a size of approximately four hundred and employed a staff of twenty teachers and administrators. During Garnet’s fifty-six years as a high school it was led by four principals: Charles Wesley Boyd, John Clark, Scott Brown, and Henry Dennis. Many very accomplished African-Americans graduated from Garnet High School such as, the Reverend Leon Sullivan and Tony Brown. Reverend Sullivan wrote the Sullivan Principles which was a factor in the ending of South Africa’s racial apartheid and Tony Brown has been a pioneer for African-Americans in the television industry.5

During segregation, Garnet High School was certainly discriminated against by the school board. Garnet did not have facilities equal to those of the white schools in the area. For example, Garnet had a combined auditorium, gymnasium, and cafeteria while the white schools had much nicer, separate facilities. Textbooks were always second-hand. Instead of buying new books for the students at Garnet, the school board bought new books for Charleston and Stonewall Jackson High Schools. The used books from the white high schools to were then given to Garnet High School. The books used at Garnet always had a stamp somewhere inside them saying “property of Charleston High School”.6 When the white high schools in the area received new textbooks, they were marked by stamps saying, “for white school use only.” Additionally, African-American students were not permitted to enter the Kanawha County Public Library and check out a book. Garnet High School had its own library, but its library consisted mainly of very old, worn books. If Garnet did not have the book a student needed, a special written permission form had to be issued. Only then could a Garnet student go to the county library and check out a book. However, used school supplies and lesser facilities were not the only means by which segregation made life more challenging for Garnet students.

Due to the few numbers of black high schools in the area, many black students had to travel long distances by bus to get to school. This meant their school days lasted several hours longer than white students who had schools much closer to their homes. Many times, discrimination against Garnet students was not an official rule or the result of a specific decision made by the school board or county, but was a part of people’s attitudes towards African-Americans. For example, while walking to school in the morning, Garnet students walked on one side of the street and the white students headed to Stonewall or Charleston High walked on the other side. No law said that the sidewalks were to be segregated, but a fight would most likely have ensued if students from either side tried to cross the street and walk on the opposite sidewalk. Small things like segregated sidewalks showed that discrimination was not only a part of the legal system of West Virginia, but also an integral part of the mentality many West Virginians endorsed. ¬†Garnet was never funded at the same level that the white schools in the area were, proving that while Charleston’s high schools were separate, they certainly were not equal.7

Segregation of the public school system was ruled unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education. The ruling that schools should be integrated was officially given on May 17, 1954. This ruling overturned the previous ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson in which the Supreme Court determined that separate but equal schools were constitutional. However, in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, the United States Supreme Court established that separate but equal schools were in reality not equal, and therefore were unconstitutional. This court ruling was then handed down to the state governments for local implementation. West Virginia was among the states with segregated schools, so naturally the court ruling carried great implications for the state. May 18th, 1954, the day after the Supreme Court ruling banning segregated schools, the Charleston Gazette published an article explaining how the school system felt about the ruling and how it was going to approach integration. The title of the article read, “Educators, Leaders See Smooth Change”.

In the article, William Trent the state superintendent of schools said he believed time was the key to a smooth transition. Through the next couple of years the school board consistently used the words “gradual” or “over time” to describe the plan for integration. Trent’s insistence on slowly integrating the school system showed that he was trying to stall. According to Trent, a sudden shift to a completely integrated school system would most likely cause many problems, especially the problem of school over-crowding. Trent also stated that, “’ Both races have indicated to me that should segregation be eliminated, they would cooperate in complying with the ruling.’” Principal Henry Denis of Garnet High School explained that, “’ The ruling was no surprise to me because I felt it was the only decision the Court could make which would be consistent with the democratic principles of our country. A great deal of planning will have to be done to carry out the terms of the ruling. Representatives of both groups will have to get together to decide on what procedure will be followed.’”8 The Kanawha County School Board, however, was slow to make decisions concerning the pending integration of Kanawha County schools.

Clearly the school board was in no hurry to integrate and wanted to delay the transition as long as possible. In September of 1954, the Kanawha County School Board chose to not integrate any schools that year. The Board acknowledged the fact that the Supreme Court had ruled segregated schools as being unconstitutional and that Kanawha County schools should be working towards integration. However, the school board explained that the Supreme Court had decided to postpone the handing down of guidelines for an integration policy. Therefore, Kanawha County Schools planned on treating the 1954-55 school year as a normal segregated year. Until the Supreme Court had answered questions about the nature of implementation procedures, the school board decided to continue conducting school as usual. The school board stated that it would revisit the issue of integration when the United States Supreme Court released a decree.9 Only one school board member voted in favor of the integration of the school system in that year. The School Board’s decision to delay the integration of the school system angered the twelve African-American NAACP representatives working with the Board, including NAACP attorney T.G. Nutter. Mr. Nutter expressed his frustration at the board’s decision by asking, “Will the schools be integrated by September of 1955?”

NAACP representatives working with the school board to help organize integration felt that the Board’s decision contradicted that of the superintendant’s in July.10 In July 1954, superintendant of Kanawha County Schools Virgil Flinn stated that segregation in Kanawha County would be eliminated by the fall of 1955. However, Superintendant Flinn later suggested that the process of integration needed to be gradual.11 Throughout the process of integration, the school board continually made statements that the schools would be integrated by a certain date. Instead of beginning work on a plan for integration that would meet the projected dates, the school board continued to delay. Eight days after the Kanawha County Board of Education decided to postpone integration, the twelve African-American NAACP representatives presented a resolution at a school board meeting. The resolution called for the immediate integration of Kanawha County schools. Despite their efforts, the Board stood by its decision to postpone integration but promised that the school board would, “proceed at the proper time and as fast as possible and feasible to integrate the schools.”12

Thanks to the work of the NAACP representatives working with the school board and pressuring them to move faster, a plan for integration was drawn up by August 1955. However, the plan seemed to be a half-hearted effort at integration meant to appease the NAACP representatives. New district boundaries were drawn up in order to include both black and white students within the same districts. Instead of integrating entire schools right at the beginning, the school board chose to integrate certain grades. The plan to only integrate certain grades within the school system once again showed the schools board’s reluctance to integrate. Feeling that integration was inevitable, the school board implemented this partial integration program as a stall tactic. For the 1955-56 school year all first and second grade students were required to attend the school in their newly drawn districts. This required that first and second grade African-American and white students be integrated while the rest of the elementary schools, grades three through six stayed segregated. All African-American first and second graders were to attend their newly designated schools, which were formerly all white schools. A few elementary schools such as, Rand, Carver, and Riverview Elementary were exempt from this decision until new districts were established for their areas. Also for the 1955-56 school year, all African-American seventh grade students were to begin attending the formerly all white schools in their newly drawn districts. The school board then laid out plans for the 1956-57 school year. All elementary, junior high, and senior high schools were to be integrated as long as the existing school facilities could accommodate the new students. Additionally, the school board set up an adjudication committee to receive and deal with the objections of parents. 13

On September 7, 1955 Kanawha County Schools officially segregated the first, second, and seventh grades. According to Superintendent Flinn, the first day of school went very smoothly; without any demonstrations or incidences. Flinn said he did not think there would be any problem throughout the county in regards to the integration program. Principal Loy at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School stated, “’Everything went fine. There was nothing unusual at all about it. We had 26 Negroes out of an enrollment of 1014. Everybody accepted them and thought nothing of it.’” Teachers, as well as students integrated on the first day of the school year. African-American teacher W.O. Brown, who held a masters degree, was assigned to be a ninth grade home room teacher at Woodrow Wilson Junior High. According to the newspapers, school administrators, and the school board, the first day of integration went very smoothly and naturally.14 Up until the 1956-57 school year, Garnet High School had not yet been affected by Kanawha County’s integration program, but the school board had already been discussing what to do with the building after the High School’s closing. In February of 1956, several Kanawha County School Board members expressed their belief that the Charleston area was in need of technicians. Therefore, in order to fulfill the need for technicians, the Garnet High School building should be converted into a technical school following the end of the 1956 school year. The Board gave the presenters permission to conduct research concerning the feasibility and cost of converting Garnet High School into a technical school and to report back their findings.15In April of 1956 the school board authorized the conversion of Garnet High School into a technical high school for the following 1956-57 school year.

Ratification of the proposed integration program for the 1956-57 school year was made official in April of 1956. The program called for the complete integration of all Kanawha County schools grades 1-12.16 A census of all Kanawha County Students was taken, all necessary school districts were redrawn, and principals were consulted with in order to formulate the program. The number of teachers needed in the newly combine schools was calculated as the census was taken. In many cases, schools were consolidated in the process of integration. As a result, several schools were closed and the newly integrated schools were extremely crowded as the African-American students began attending their new schools.17 For the students of Garnet High School this meant that they would now be attending either Stonewall Jackson High School or Charleston High School, both previously all white schools.

Attitudes concerning integration among Garnet High School students and the community surrounding the school were mixed. Prior integration, many of the students who would be attending Charleston or Stonewall Jackson High were nervous as they did not know what to expect. Also, many who had already graduated from Garnet had a lot of pride in their school and did not want to see it closed. Some in Charleston’s African-American community felt that, despite the sadness surrounding the school closing, segregation was wrong, and that desegregation was right and necessary.18 However, after integration was complete, nearly all members of the African-American community in Charleston agree that segregation was bad for everyone. Charleston was different from many southern cities which had protests and violence in opposition to integration because it did not experience any serious outward demonstrations. This, however, does not mean that African-American students in Charleston had a completely incident free and smooth transition. Garnet students that were sent to Charleston or Stonewall Jackson High Schools were certainly not welcomed by the white students.19

African-American students were discriminated against, especially when it came to receiving appropriate grades in class and receiving inductions to various honor societies. Many graduates shared stories of how they or their younger siblings were consistently given low grades by teachers undeservedly. Honor societies were setup in such a way that membership was only available to white students. Even when the rules did not specifically ban black students, there were often other rules which made it impossible for black students to become members. African-American students who tried out for extracurricular activities, such as athletic teams or the arts, were conveniently not chosen during tryouts.20 Garnet High School was known for having some of the best athletic teams and band in the state. It was certainly not a lack of talent or ability that prevented former Garnet students from joining extracurricular activities in the newly integrated Charleston and Stonewall Jackson High Schools.21

Ultimately, Charleston’s African-American community felt that integration hurt black students because the quality of education that they received at Garnet was far superior to the quality of education they received in the integrated school system. The level of education of Garnet teachers was astonishing. All of Garnet’s teachers were college graduates, many of the teachers held masters’ degrees and several teachers even held doctorates. Garnet teachers were extremely interested in the lives of each of their students. Many of the teachers went to school with the students’ parents and knew the students and their families personally. Graduates shared stories of how, teachers would arrive at the school early and leave the school late in order to teach extra classes for students wanting to learn as much as they could.22 During lunch hour, students would eat with the teachers and discuss current event issues. It was the day to day relationships that the teachers had with the students that really set Garnet apart from the surrounding white schools.

English teachers such as Mrs. Norman and Mr. Williams not only taught students how to write papers, but also taught students how to walk and talk like the intelligent, upstanding and respectable people they needed be to succeed in a segregated world. Academic excellence was of upmost importance to the teachers and they encouraged their students to go to college and achieve high levels of education.23 Mrs. Sandra Evans, a graduate of the last class of Garnet in 1956, shared a quote that her father often said to her that tells very well, the situation that African-Americans faced everyday living in a segregated society, “You have to be twice as smart, work twice as hard, but only expect half as much pay.” Garnet’s teachers understood this very well and worked hard to prepare their students for a world that was certainly not equal.24

Prior to the closing of Garnet, the students were encouraged to talk about integration and how they felt about. An article titled “What Integration Means to America” was written by a student for Garnet’s school newspaper The Eye. The article expressed that Garnet’s student body was not quite sure what to expect upon integration. However, the author seemed to think that integration was going to be a good thing for our nation as a whole. According to the article, integration was the right thing to do, and integration could lead to better equality for African-Americans.25 Unfortunately, the optimism was short lived. As integration actually unfolded reality hit and Charleston’s African-American community realized that integration was not all it was made out to be.

Garnet truly was the center of the African-American community in Charleston. Relationships were made and sustained largely through the school. Since Garnet was one of the few black high schools in the area, it was where local African-Americans met and bonded. Years after students graduated they would still gather and socialize. The African-American community was tight knit because everybody knew everybody, and everybody knew everybody because of Garnet. In addition to its social influence, Garnet’s student population helped sustain many of the African-American businesses surrounding the school.26 Graduates reminisced about walking down the street to local black diners for lunch or after school hangouts. The African-American businesses along with Garnet and the black neighborhoods surrounding the school made the African-American community practically a city within a city. However, all of that changed when Garnet was shut down due to integration in 1956.27

Thus, the closing of Garnet High School had a tremendous impact on the Africa-American community in Charleston. The majority of Garnet graduates feel that it was “the worst thing that ever happened to the community.” Once integration had occurred and Africa-American students were discovering what integrated society was like, they felt as if they had been lied to. Integration was portrayed as being the key to an equal society, but in reality society was still far from being equal. Gradually over the next several years, the black businesses surrounding the former Garnet High School shut down. Additionally, as society as a whole became more integrated the formerly black neighborhoods became integrated as well. The closing of Garnet seemed to be the first domino to fall in the weakening of Charleston’s African-American community.

Garnet really was the center of Charleston’s African-American community because it was where all African-Americans in the Charleston area came together as students, friends, business associates, educators, and motivators. When Garnet closed down it took away the binding link of the community’s life. Without Garnet High School the thread that held the African-American community together disappeared. The African-American community in Charleston today strongly feels that they would be better off today if the school system would have stayed segregated. African-American students would be receiving a much higher level of education than they do today and the local community would still be close knit and strong.28


1 The West Virginia Encyclopedia, “African-American Education”

2Group Interview of the Members of the Garnet Foundation Board by Mary Harper 28 March 2011, Hereafter referred to as “Garnet Foundation Board Interview.” Many thanks to the members of the Garnet Foundation for taking the time to share the history of their beloved school and the memories that make it worth preserving. This story could not have been told without your help.

3 The West Virginia Encyclopedia, “Garnet High School”

4¬† “The Way We Were 1900-1956,” Garnet High School Year book.

5 The West Virginia Encyclopedia, “Garnet High School”

6 Henderson, Ruth Lawson. 2011. Interview by Mary Harper 25 March.

7 Garnet Foundation Board Interview by Mary Harper 28 March 2011.

8 1,20. Mary Chilton Chapman, “Educators, Leaders See Smooth Change” Charleston Gazette, May 18, 1954

9 Kanawha County Board of Education School Board Minutes, September 1, 1954.

10 1. “Racial Reversal Denied by Board” Charleston Gazette, September 10, 1954

11 1. Harry W. Ernst, “Kanawha County sets 1955 for School De-Segregation: No Wholesale Racial Shift Expected Now” Charleston Gazette, July 9, 1954

12 Kanawha County Board of Education School Board Minutes, September 9, 1954

13 Kanawha County Board of Education School Board Minutes, August 4, 1955

14 1,8. Don Seagle, “ County Quiet as Schools ‘Integrate’: Kanawha Combines Two Races In 1st, 2nd, and 7th Grades” Charleston Gazette, September 8, 1955

15 Kanawha County Board of Education School Board Minutes, February 9, 1956

16 Kanawha County Board of Education School Board Minutes, April 12, 1956

17 Kanawha County Board of Education School Board Minutes: The Integration Program In the Elementary Schools of Kanawha County School Year 1956-57 April 12, 1956

18 Henderson, Ruth Lawson. 2011. Interview by Mary Harper 25 March.

19 Haynes, Jesse. 2011. Interview by Mary Harper 21 March. Special thanks to Mr. Jesse Haynes for his incredible help throughout all of this research. This story could not have been told without your help.

20 Evans, Sandra. 2011. Interview by Mary Harper 25 March.

21 Henderson, Ruth Lawson. 2011. Interview by Mary Harper 25 March.

22 Garnet Foundation Board Interview, by Mary Harper 28 March.

23 Haynes, Jesse. 2011. Interview by Mary Harper 21 March.

24 Evans, Sandra. 2011. Interview by Mary Harper 25 March.

25 Dolly Foster “What Integration Means to America” The Eye, February 28, 1956

26 Garnet Foundation Board Interview by Mary Harper 28 March.

27 Henderson, Ruth Lawson. 2011. Interview by Mary Harper 25 March.

28 Garnet Foundation Board Interview by Mary Harper 28 March.
Fig.1 Mary Harper. Garnet High School, 2011