Virginia Schools in the Great Depression
Created and maintained by Tom Ewing and the Department of History at Virginia Tech with Jane Lehr, Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies Programs, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in collaboration with the African American Heritage Program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Reviewed Sept. 2008.
A single question drives this Web site: How did the Great Depression affect public schools in Virginia? Virginia Schools in the Great Depression invites visitors to explore the period from various viewpoints and through diverse sources. Although intended for teachers and students, it will appeal to anyone interested in the history of education in Virginia, the consequences of the Great Depression for ordinary people, the influence of public opinion on education policy, and the function of racial segregation and gender discrimination in the 1930s upper South. Visitors who enjoy a good intellectual chase will also be drawn in by some of the lively quarry running through the sources.
Two sections provide site access. “Race and Education” leads to document collections searchable by Virginia city or county, year, and keyword. Although not extensive, the sources vary by type and include Virginia newspapers such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Virginian Pilot, as well as the African American newspapers the Richmond Planet and the Norfolk Journal and Guide. The Virginia Teachers' Bulletin of the African-American Virginia Teachers' Association, superintendent reports for Virginia counties and cities, and many excellent photographs from the federal Farm Securities Administration are also searchable on the site.
The other section, “Education Modules,” contains five lesson plans that are constructed around these questions: What impact did the Great Depression have on Virginia public schools and on American society? Who bore the burden of public opinion and school policy in the depression? How did the Great Depression affect racially segregated schooling in Virginia? How did the depression impact female teachers? How did the depression present new challenges for teaching civics issues such as democracy, equality, and public participation? Navigation tools allow students to move easily through these modules and, by examining pertinent sources, arrive at conclusions outlined in each module. Detailed guides help teachers direct students through the process and link the lessons to the Virginia Standards of Learning and the National History Standards. Along the way, students gain a better understanding of how straitened circumstances during the depression limited school funding, reduced teacher salaries and per student expenditures, disproportionately disadvantaged African American students and educators, and forced many womenóboth white and blackóout of teaching jobs.
Although the education modules are tightly wound around supposition and conclusion, surprises do await adventurous visitors. Despite the assertion in the module on racial segregation that “in every school district across Virginia, the per capita spending on white students was higher than on African American students,” a close county-by-county examination of instruction costs reveals that in some, mostly rural, western counties such as Frederick, Craig, Floyd, Highland, Giles, and Bland, school systems spent more on black students than on white ones. This higher spending may have reflected diseconomies of scale in schooling small numbers of black students. More intriguing, however, is the possibility that attitudes stressing public education and social equality survived into the twentieth century from Virginia Readjusters and Republicans, who had been prominent in western Virginia in the decades following Reconstruction. Here is a subject students of any age might want to explore.
Warren R. Hofstra