About Us  |  Shopping  | Celebrations Calendar  |  Local Links  |  Classifieds  |  Recipes

Chesapeake Style Online

Current Issue
Sponsors With Style
Specialized Markets
Students In Style
Contact Us
Local Links
TideWriters Tales
Howland Graded School—The first school for Black Children in Northumberland County, Virginia
By Janet Abbott Fast

     If you cast a small pebble onto the surface of a glassy calm pond, ripples form and move outward across the water. Each ripple causes another, and another and so on. A very small act can make a significant difference. Make a Ripple - Make a Difference.

     The year Emily Howland celebrated her 101st birthday, Marie Yerby Nelms entered first grade at Howland Graded School, in Northumberland County. On a cool day in January 2006, eight former students, three sets of siblings, who had attended Howland Graded School gathered for a photo shoot, inside and outside the school. Later, in the comfort of a nearby church they reminisced about their years as children attending the school.

     Each one has made contributions by giving back to society in his or her own significant way. In 1939 Eloise Toulson Walker entered first grade at Howland Graded School, a one room school house. Later she became a prominent leader in the community. Others who attended the first school for Black children in Northumberland County, in Virginia’s Northern Neck, followed and made their mark on society as well.

     Howland Graded School, also known as Howland Chapel, originally a log cabin, was founded in 1867. It was named for Emily Howland who was born in Sherwood, New York, November 20, 1827 and died January 29, 1929. She was a philanthropist who started the school for Virginia’s Black families. An active abolitionist, Howland taught at a school for young black girls in Washington D.C. from 1857 to 1859. During the Civil War she worked in Arlington, Virginia teaching freed slaves to read and write as well as administering to the sick during a smallpox outbreak. According to a local newspaper article, her father purchased property near Heathsville in 1867. 

     Initially the school had first grade through seventh, then later first through fourth or fifth grades. Although it’s referred to as a one-room school house, it has two rooms. A wood stove in the classroom shared a chimney with a wood cook stove, located in the adjacent room, where lunches were prepared and eaten. Several old school desks attest to their age with carvings made by bored or creative students. In the morning the teacher arrived early and started a fire in the wood stove. Later when the children arrived they lined up and each child brought in a piece of wood to keep the fire going. The children also cleaned the floors. 

     Eloise attended the school from 1939 to 1943, where her mother, Elsie Tolson Walker, taught a decade earlier. She said her mamma had to go to Manassas to high school. She went to Coan Wharf to catch the steamboat to Washington, D.C. Then she caught the train to Manassas. She left in September and didn’t return home until May. She finished high school in 1928 and taught school in 1929 and 1930 before she was married and had children. Eloise learned to cook at home. As a student she recalls helping cook for a short time, and that the pans were “leaky”. There was no bus service until 1942 or 1943. Some of the children lived close enough to walk, others rode the bus.

     Later Emma Roane, the wife of the pastor who lived behind the school in the parsonage, became he teacher. She had three children of her own. The teachers acted like mothers and discipline was not a problem. There was a cherry switch, used for the misbehaving child and a corner to stand in, facing the wall. If a child misbehaved more than once, Mrs. Roane, would tell the parents. And she didn’t hesitate to wash out a child’s mouth with soap if need be. About 10 a.m. there was a ten minute recess, a second recess after lunch and another ten minutes in the afternoon.

     Mrs. Roane fixed lunch making sandwiches with peanut butter from a large jar. In winter she also made soup on the wood stove. At lunch time the children washed their hands over a bucket. One would dip the water from the bucket, pour it over another child’s hands, and the bucket caught the excess water. Hands were dried on a towel. Only the most trusted child was allowed to dip the water for hand-washing. Drinking cups were made out of notebook paper.

     Today an outhouse stands behind the school house. But when school was in session there were two outhouses, one for boys and one for the girls. Both two-seaters were located further away than the one there now. The girls had to cross a ditch via a bridge.

     School books were sold to the families in the School Board office. Books were not provided, and the children always had to buy their books. “Mama and Daddy came by horse and wagon to pick up the books. Mama checked all the pages,” and later covered the books with brown paper so they could be sold the following year. Books were half price the second year and one-third of the original price the third year. You could tell how old the book was by the number of names in it. It was important to keep the book clean and, except for the child’s name, not to write in it.

     Marie Yerby Nelms went to the school when she was six years old in 1928. She was the only person in the group who had Elsie Tolson Walker as her teacher. Her sister Ethel Yerby Christian was there in 1942. Everyone else was taught by Mrs. Roane. Eloise had three younger siblings who attended the school. Lyttleton Alonzo Walker started in 1942 or 1943; Elsie Walker Horton attended from 1945 to May 1949; Levi Milton Walker, started in 1948 and attended four years. Grace Tolson Nickens attended Howland Graded School from 1945 through 1949, and her sister, Helen Tolson Burnett was there in the early thirties, when Mrs. Roane was the teacher. 

     Levi started working at age nine, as a janitor, while still a student. He earned $5 a month. The teacher was married to his cousin, he explained as the reason for his having the job. He spent his earnings at Otis Peterson’s tiny store across the road from the school. The store had candy, paper, pencils, and sold gasoline and grocery items such as fat meat, mayonnaise, canned goods and sodas. Later he served in the Air Force, and drove a tractor-trailer for DuPont in Richmond.

     Eloise Walker Toulson served on the school board for Northumberland County for 23 years. She was the only Black woman on the board and served as its chairman for nine years. She was also the first Black Chairman of the Board.

     After high school, Grace Tolson Nickens picked crabs, worked at Levi’s, went to school in Maryland and later worked in home care.

     Helen Tolson Burnett went to high school, married, drove a school bus for 30 years, and worked in the school cafeteria for 35 years.

     After high school, Marie Yerby Nelms went into the field of nursing care and worked in homes and at Lancashire, in Kilmarnock.

     Ethel Yerby Christian moved to Baltimore after high school, attended business school and worked for the city Health Department for 40 years.

     Elsie Walker Horton went to nursing school in Baltimore, became a Registered Nurse, worked in New Jersey and then for the Health Department in the Northern Neck for 18 years.

     Lyttleton Alonzo Walker served in the Army and started his own tractor trailer trucking business in the Northern Neck. © 2006 Janet Abbott Fast All Rights Reserved.

The following information about Emily Howland was obtained from From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, online.
  • Emily Howland (November 20, 1827 - January 29, 1929) was a philanthropist and educator.
  • An active abolitionist, Howland taught at a school for young black girls in Washington D.C. from 1857 to 1859. During the Civil War she worked in Arlington, Virginia teaching freed slaves to read and write as well as administering to the sick during a smallpox outbreak.
  • In 1882 she assumed control over the Sherwood Select school as owner and consulting head, a position she held up to her one hundredth year in 1927, at which point it was renamed the Emily Howland high school by the New York State Board of Regents.
  • She became the first female director of a national bank in the United States, at the Aurora National Bank in New York in 1890, where she served up to her death.
  • Howland was also active in women's suffrage and peace. Also active in temperance, she was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.
  • In 1926 she received the Litt.D. degree from the University of the State of New York. She was the first woman to have this honor conferred upon her from this institution.
  • She was also the author of the book Historical Sketch of Friends in Cayuga County.

For more information about Emily Howland, go to the links listed.

A photo of Emily Howland in her later years: 

Early History Of Friends In Cayuga County, N. Y.
Read before the Cayuga County Historical Society, April 8th, 1880
By Miss Emily Howland


Award Winning Publication 

Award Winning Publication 
Mention you saw it on ChesapeakeStyle Online

Another quality website proudly designed, 
hosted, maintained and promoted by
Simply Web Services of Fredericksburg, Virginia
© Simply Web Services & Chesapeake Bay Marketing, Inc.
Page created Feb 12, 2006
Page last updated