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Town filled with unique black history stories

By Staff | Mar 2, 2012

As we reach the end of black history month, it is pertinent to look back at Shepherdstown itself when reflecting on the topic. Shepherdstown is unique in many ways, one of which is the abundance of African-American history the tiny little town holds, especially when considering education.

The first school for black residents of Shepherdstown opened around 1867 on the west side of town and was known as The Old School. This one-room school made of brick was used to educate for almost 20 years before being replaced by a large frame structure known as the Shadyside School in 1883.

The Shadyside School hosted students ranging from grades 1 through 8. John W. Harris attended Shadyside, and eventually became principal of the school. When describing the school (in an interview for Goldenseal magazine recovered by the Spirit of Jefferson Farmer’s Advocate), Harris described Shadyside as being “an aging two-room building, decrepit even by old-time standards.” Clearly the school was not the finest educational facility, but it served a unique purpose as being the first public school for African-Americans in Shepherdstown. Shadyside School was closed in 1946, and black students went to the new East Side School.

Residents of Shepherdstown recollect the stories that their family members have told about attending the Shadyside School, and other all-black schools, throughout the area. One particular resident, Elizabeth Cook, had a stepfather who attended Shadyside and had perfect attendance for his second grade year. Cook also has fond memories of her experiences in a segregated school system, and being part of the first group of students to be integrated into a white school during the 50s.

“It was an exciting time,” Cook said of her first experience in a non-segregated school. Cook was part of a small group of students who integrated into Shepherdstown High School in 1956. During this time, the United States was in the beginning stages of the Civil Rights movement. One would expect such an integration to be scary, especially given the racial divide that the country was experiencing. However, Cook and her classmates were excited.

“Most of the students already knew us before we even got there,” Cook claimed, “It was a small and tight-knit community.” Though racism still existed, it was not nearly as present in Shepherdstown High School as it was for the rest of the country.

“We encountered no trouble whatsoever,” Cook explained when discussing her integration into a white school. The people were friendly, something significant to Shepherdstown even today.

Elizabeth Cook is just one example of several in this small town who hold a piece of black history inside of them. From the Shadyside School to the integrated Shepherdstown High School, Shepherdstown has hosted a plethora of different schools that each served a unique part in the town’s own black history.