Published September 8, 2021

Virginia Estelle Randolph (1870-1958) was an educator, community leader, and social activist whose influence as a teacher extended beyond her Henrico County, Virginia classroom. She was the first countywide Jeanes Supervising Industrial Teacher, a position developed by Booker T. Washington and others in 1908 and originally funded by the Quaker philanthropist Anna T. Jeanes to provide funding and support to Black teachers in the rural south. As a Jeanes teacher, Randolph traveled to over twenty elementary schools in Henrico County sharing her teaching methods, establishing school improvement leagues, and encouraging greater community involvement in the classroom.

Richmond Colored Normal School – Image courtesy of Cook Collection, The Valentine

Born in 1870 in Richmond to formerly enslaved parents, Randolph attended Baker School, the first public school built for Black students in Richmond. She was able to continue her education at the Richmond Colored Normal School, an institution of the Freedmen’s Bureau known for its rigorous academics and its teacher preparation component. From childhood, education and religion would become intertwined for Randolph, a longtime member of Moore Street Missionary Baptist Church, a pillar of Richmond’s Black community. Her commitment to both education and spirituality would eventually inform her career as a teacher.

When Randolph began teaching at Mountain Road School in 1894, there were no secondary schools for African Americans in Henrico County. To prepare students for the workforce, Randolph adopted a “holistic” mode of teaching that fused the academic and the vocational at the elementary school level.  In addition to providing education and career training, she engaged students by teaching them a home economics program of sewing, carpentry, cooking, and gardening. Randolph also worked to instill a sense of community, involving parents in Willing Worker Clubs and school improvement leagues, and organizing Sunday school services on weekends. Her successful approach, detailed in a manual entitled The Henrico Plan, would later influence hundreds of Jeanes teachers throughout the south and was eventually disseminated internationally.

Elvatrice Belsches

“Randolph believed in training the head, heart, hands and spirit,” says Elvatrice Belsches, a Richmond-based public historian who has authored biographical entries on Randolph in our Encyclopedia Virginia (EV) and in the African American National Biography (AANB), a collaborative publication of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University and Oxford University Press. Belsches’ interest in Randolph extends back to childhood. Her father, the late Ernest Parker, Sr., taught mathematics and served as an assistant football coach at Virginia Randolph High School in Henrico County for fourteen years. Belsches grew up hearing her father tell stories about Randolph visiting the high school during her retirement.

Now, with a Virginia Humanities grant, Belsches is bringing Randolph’s memory to life. The grant will provide funding that Belsches will use to develop a script, pursue archival research, and perform several interviews that will ultimately lead to a film documentary, a publication, and an oral history archive detailing Randolph’s achievements. Belsches’ work will enrich our understanding of Randolph’s life and legacy and introduce a new generation of students and educators to Randolph’s methods.

Belsches is particularly interested in illuminating Randolph’s lesser-known contributions in the areas of public health and criminal justice reform. This includes an EV entry she wrote about Randolph that explores Randolph’s role as a founding member of the Negro Organization Society. The organization was established in 1912 at Hampton Institute and worked to promote better health, farms, schools, and homes. As one of the organization’s founding members, Randolph “anchored interracial coalitions that sought to mitigate the effects of inequities in healthcare, education and the juvenile justice system.” She also served as one of the leaders of the Colored Branch of the Red Cross Chapter in Richmond and led efforts to appoint a Black visiting public health nurse in Henrico County.

As an early advocate of criminal justice reform, Randolph recognized the futility of youth incarceration. She served on the board at the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, a juvenile rehabilitation center and manual arts academy in Hanover County. Randolph personally boarded children who were referred to her by the justice system, as well as those whose parents could not care for them. According to Belsches, Randolph once housed seventeen children.

In the doubly oppressive context of the Jim Crow era—of federally mandated segregation and of white opposition to improving educational opportunities for African Americans—Randolph’s singular achievements, and her bravery, can hardly be overstated. Belsches’ three-part project will capture this lifelong story. “Each component is vital,” she says, “because no single vehicle can capture the extraordinary stories, legacies, and achievements of Miss Randolph, the administrators, educators, and students.”

A historic marker in Henrico County dedicated to Virginia Randolph has been updated to reflect Elvatrice Belsches’ findings.

Belsches’ work has already begun to change Virginia’s historical landscape. A historic marker dedicated to Randolph in 1992 has been removed and replaced with a new plaque that incorporates Belsches findings. On May 6, 2021, Belsches had the honor of delivering the keynote address at the marker’s rededication in Henrico County.  

Belsches and her team are shooting film for her documentary about Randolph. So far, they have collected footage from several schools associated with Randolph and conducted interviews with people who knew her. “These stories told by those who knew her best are riveting,” said Belsches. “They virtually bring her to life!”

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