While looking through some recently acquired items, I came across a yearbook from 1939. Generally, an old yearbook is a good reference book for research about people or a school but they’re also relatively easy to find. This one, however, seemed special. The yearbook is The Peabodian from 1939. There are a few things that make it interesting: the history of Peabody High school, the content of the yearbook, the construction of the yearbook, and how few copies are available for use. This book has history.
It’s clear from the moment one picks it up that this yearbook is special. The cover is faded and stained with a late-art deco style design. The interior contains 111 pages printed on the front only. Each page is mimeographed and bound through two holes to the cover. The photos in the yearbook are black-and-white prints that were pasted to the pages. Looking at each page, the age of the volume is apparent. The paste used to secure the photos began to release at some point and someone taped the photos in. Then, the tape was removed and the photos were glued in again. Because of the failing adhesives over the years, there are some photos missing. Still, the volume is beautifully made and was likely somewhat expensive when it was printed. At this time, the only copies of this yearbook that we know of are the one we just acquired and one other at the University of Virginia.
About the school
Peabody High School was originally known as the Colored High School. Instruction began in 1870 in an old First Baptist Church building in Petersburg, Virginia. It was the first public school established for people of color in Virginia. The first five principals were white men. In 1874, after outgrowing the old church, a new building opened to house the school. It was named for Massachusetts Philanthropist George Peabody because much of the funding for the new building came from The George Peabody Fund. In 1882, the first person of color was named principal: Alfred Pryor. In the early nineteen-teens, the school moved again. The new site had two buildings: Peabody, the senior high school, and Williams, the junior high school – named for Henry Williams, the minister of the Gilfield Baptist Church in Petersburg. This came shortly before Virginia schools moved from a three year high school course of study to a four year course. By 1921-1922, Peabody had an accredited four year high school course of study. It moved again in 1951 to a new facility. Due to Virginia’s campaign of Massive Resistance, the school remained segregated until 1970. When it was finally integrated, the school board decided Peabody would be a middle school and Petersburg High School would be the area’s only high school. The school is in operation to this day as Peabody Middle School.
The yearbook contains a dedication to Mr. H. Colson Jackson. This is Henry Colson Jackson who was born in 1903 in Petersburg, Virginia. During his 70 year teaching career, one of the places he taught was Peabody High School.
The dedication reads:
We dedicate this book to one who has held a place of respect and admiration among the students of Peabody High School for many years. One who has been a friend and advisor to all who have asked his help or advice. One who is untiring in any endeavor he undertakes, and who strives for perfection, a man who is cooperative and understanding – – – – Mr. H. Colson Jackson.
This yearbook comes just a few years after the start of many of the school’s clubs:
- The Peabody Script (school newspaper) – Started in 1936
- Dramatic Club – Started in 1937-1938
- Girls Club – Started in 1937
- Peabody Melodic Club – Started in 1938
- Civics Club – Unknown start date but sponsoring faculty changed in 1939
- Domestic Science Club – Started in 1934
- Domestic Art Club – Started in 1936, Reorganized in 1939
- Peabody Hi-y Club – Started in 1932, split into a Senior Hi-y Club (for juniors and seniors) and a Junior Hi-y Club (for freshmen and sophomores) in 1939
- Public Speaking and Debating Club – Started in 1936
- Athletics (football, basketball) – Started in 1936
These extracurriculars mostly began during the short time that Clarence W. Seay was principal and then continued once Donald C. Wingo took the position. During the short time they existed up to this point, the clubs were active in bringing art and entertainment to the student body and the area. The Dramatic Club had already participated twice in the Annual State Dramatic Tournament and the Peabody Melodic Club had hosted the Huntington High School Chorus and was raising money to buy a “radio-victrola” (a radio).
At the back of the yearbook, there is a section for advertisements which mostly consists of ads from local establishments in Petersburg, Virginia. In addition to that, there is a full-page color advertisement for Milton Bradley Co. School Supplies. This is indeed the Milton Bradley Company that comes to mind today as a board game manufacturer. Milton Bradley (the person) believed strongly in early childhood education and this led him to expand his business beyond games and into school supplies. Some interesting information on this can be found on the FindingUniverse site or in various biographical articles about Bradley. This part of the business continued until the end of the 1930s depression era.
Looking through this volume of Virginia history, U.S. history, and the history of education for people of color highlights the joy and pride this group of students and educators took in their pursuits. From senior quotes to senior superlatives and debate to football, the students at this school were engaged and amazing.
More about the history of the school can be found on the Peabody High School National Alumni Association site. For more on education for people of color in Virginia and the commonwealth’s struggle to desegregate, check out the Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) project hosted by Old Dominion University’s Special Collections and University Archives. To see the yearbook for yourself, stop by Special Collections at Virginia Tech and we’d be happy to let you take a look.