Nicholas Patler: Rename Staunton high school in honor of Rita Wilson

rita wilsonBorn into a segregated southern world, Rita Wilson had attended local schools that were set apart for African Americans. She later worked as a domestic for white families, which was one of the few jobs available to local African American women. Making the best of the limitations imposed upon her by the dominant white culture, Wilson nevertheless felt the sting and humiliation of Jim Crow and its ubiquitous message of black inferiority.

Weary of being considered a second-class citizen, frustrated by the denial of benefits enjoyed by whites because of her color, and not willing to accept her proscribed place any longer, Wilson one day decided it was time. It had been over a decade since Brown v. Board of Education had declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. Staunton, like other areas of the South, was dragging its feet, making no expedient effort to desegregate its schools in accordance with the Supreme Court decision. Tired of waiting, Wilson took her children to a white school and enrolled them a year before city schools were officially desegregated.

While black schools provided a sense of community and a more authentic connection to the black experience and history, these schools were underfunded compared to white schools, receiving “torn and dirty books” that were “not fit for white children,” according to one local black educator. Segregated schools also allowed white society to perpetuate the myth of black inferiority and had buttressed the larger racist order known as Jim Crow. Wilson wanted her white community to know that her children—or any black children—deserved the best education possible and that they would no longer be denied or undervalued.

Wanting more out of life than working as a domestic for white families, Wilson earned her GED and then went on to get a degree from Blue Ridge Community College followed by a second degree from Mary Baldwin College while working in human services.

Following her passion to serve her community as well to break down barriers, Wilson became the first black woman (or man) to serve on the city school board and made history once again by becoming the first African American to serve on city council where she would go on to become vice-mayor. During her first year on council, some of the white men refused to talk to her because of her color and gender, upsetting her deeply. But Wilson never gave up and served with vision and distinction, making lasting contributions to her city and its residents. Her accomplishments paved the way for other African Americans and women to serve on city council as well as in other local positions of power and service.

Today, most people would be hard-pressed to come up with one public school named after an African American woman. There are a few out there, including ones today being named after Michelle Obama, but a public school bearing the name of a black woman who made a meaningful contribution to her community and nation are few and far in between. The vast majority of public schools are still named after white males. Part of the reason for this neglect is because historically white patriarchal society devalued African American women and tried to force them to the margins of invisibility because it deemed them of no significance in the dominant white masculine worldview.

Yet, as I discover over and over in my own historical research, African American women, perhaps more than any marginalized group, refused to be invisible or acquiesce to being silenced by racial and gender discrimination. They have significantly contributed to making our democracy more inclusive and responsive, from the abolition movement, to the early and later feminist movements, to their crucial work expanding political and civil rights throughout the twentieth century and today.

Rita Wilson is part of this tradition, a black woman who refused to be silenced and invisible, and who worked to make our local community a better one for all people. She represents not only the best of our community, but also the best of the American tradition where ordinary people have struggled to expand rights and opportunities for everyone while blazing a trail for the disempowered, often in the face of hostility and resistance. We should seize the unique opportunity and honor that this historical moment presents here in our own community to have our high school named after this remarkable pioneer and community leader.

There is also something that seems to tip the scales of justice a bit more, to right one small corner of the universe, by having the name of our school changed to Rita Wilson High School, in honor of a black woman. We would be one of a handful of communities nationwide to have a school named after an African American female trailblazer. We would always have to invoke her full-name whenever we refer to the school—Rita Wilson High—to distinguish it from Wilson High in Fishersville, or “Wilson” as most of us have always called it.

What a message this would send to the world about the progressive city of Staunton, Virginia, one that is moving forward as a nationally recognized center of arts and history. And, most importantly, what a positive message of vision and perseverance for our children who would attend Rita Wilson High School.

As Wilson told her audience one evening at First Presbyterian Church, which could perhaps be engraved somewhere on the school: “I first came here as a domestic and now I come here to speak as vice-mayor.”

Nicholas Patler is a local resident who teaches African American History online at West Virginia State University, and a published historian whose focus in African American History. To hear more from the late Rita Wilson in her own voice, see the local publication, In Their Words: Growing Up in Segregated Staunton and Augusta County, Virginia by Dr. Laten Bechtel.


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