Documenting a Historic Black High School

December 12, 2017
UR students wrote and performed a documentary drama about the history of Armstrong High

By Sydney Collins, '20

Imagine a city of Richmond high school built in 1865, currently positioned in the middle of housing projects with a detention center on the side of it. One of the housing projects is on top of an old city dump. Yet, an increasing number of residents in the surrounding area send their children to the school in the center of it all because of its convenience.

However, the high school is in danger of being shut down, and if that happens, those same students who currently attend school within their community would have to get on a bus and drive half an hour every day to go to a new school. This is the issue professors Laura Browder and Patricia Herrera targeted in their community problem solving seminar offered fall 2017.

The course, Documenting a Historic Black High School: A Richmond Community Project, centers around Armstrong High School, located on Cool Lane, and its role in the community’s history. The course’s purpose is to expose UR students to a Richmond high school that has a rich history clouded with segregation and inform them of its grim future.

This course is one of the community-based learning programs here at the University in which professors embolden students to reach past the confines of college and enter the greater society with a newfound understanding of societal issues.

For their course, Professors Browder and Herrera first engaged students with research of the school’s profound history then worked with them to compose a play to articulate their findings.

“We spent many classes at Armstrong,” Browder said. “We went to the archives to conduct research and conducted oral history interviews.” 

After learning about Armstrong and the history of its surrounding neighborhoods that have been stricken by poverty, the students interacted with both current Armstrong students and Armstrong alumni.

“That phase of the class was about what kind of relationship we could establish with the students there because ultimately we wanted to be writing a documentary drama based on the experiences and history of Armstrong,” Herrera said. “What are the students at Armstrong experiencing now and what did alums experience because there’s a big contrast. 

Throughout the course, the students had the opportunity to meet with Armstrong alumni and learn about their individual experiences with the school that has been increasingly neglected over the years, partially due to its impoverished neighborhood.

“The alums are very nostalgic as a group and they talk about their years at Armstrong as the best years of their lives and how beautiful the school was,” Browder said. “But, the students today have a more mixed experience and they’re very demoralized because the school’s very underfunded by the city of Richmond and is constantly in danger of being shut down.”

“There’s also this difference between what they’re experiencing during segregation and then after ‘integration,’” Herrera said. “But you can see that during that time, there’s a fracture in the community. Teachers who were in the community are no longer there because they were moved to other schools because of integration. The sense of community that the alums talk about is not as strong now, it’s almost a revolving door.”

Browder and Herrera emphasized that their students have formed a deep connection with Armstrong High School and its students. They said that this association between UR students and Armstrong students was crucial to the process of writing the play. They have also become increasingly aware of Armstrong’s uncertain fate.

“In every three-year plan, Armstrong is on the list of being closed down,” Herrera said. “It’s not a new phenomenon for Armstrong but it’s also not a new phenomenon for a black high school in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. If the students start doing bad and the school is neglected, that gives them even more reason to shut it down.”

“Armstrong is so underfunded that while the city of Richmond mandates $3.40 per square foot for each public school for maintenance each year, Armstrong only gets $0.63,” Browder said. “That statistic is the center of one of our scenes because the Armstrong students, as well as our students, were so upset when they found out about that discrepancy. This is a way to bring out those discrepancies to the surface and show how the school is being set up for failure.”

The play was written by Browder and Herrera’s students and also performed by them, in addition to a few select alums. Director Jose Joaquin Garcia was flown in from New York to rehearse with the students in preparation for the performance.

Browder and Herrera invited city government officials and members of the school board to the class’ production on December 4 in order to bring them in a dialogue with neighbors of Armstrong, current students, and alumni.

Browder and Herrera have taught community problem solving seminars for the last eight years and said that they enjoy being involved in these programs because they don’t view them as any typical course.

“Our courses are not about who writes the most polished term paper with the most sophisticated argument,” Browder said. “It’s all about being willing to take risks and put yourself in situations that may not be comfortable, challenge your beliefs, and try a lot of things that you’ve never tried before.”