An Eptiomized History of Education in Accomac County, Va.


by J. C. Weaver, Superintendent.

Like most of the counties of Virginia, Accomac depended mainly upon the Literary Fund to supply a very scanty primary education to those of her children who were unable to attend the neighborhood private schools. These schools were dotted about in sections that were fortunate enough to secure the services of some itinerant teacher in quest of a precarious living, or young men preparing for professional life. Some of these teachers were good, some very poor; not unfrequently the lord of the country school was some unfortunate, bankrupt in purse, broken down in constitution, a slave to intoxication and a terror to his pupils. Into such schools the beneficiaries of the Literary Fund were received at about five cents a day, for, perhaps, three months in the year, then schoolless for the remaining nine.

Notwithstanding the drawbacks, the people of the county were fairly intelligent. The old English custom of assembling at the "court-green" and at public places, to mingle in social intercourse and discuss the issues of the day, imparted a large amount of information to the masses. This school of association very largely took the place of book-learning, and left a deep impression upon the multitude, particularly noticeable to the stranger.

In the most prominent neighborhoods good private schools were maintained; sometimes by family tutors. About the beginning of the present century some enterprising citizens of Accomac and Northampton, wishing a school of higher grade, where their sons could be taught without leaving "The Shore," determined to found an academy. By individual subscriptions and donations of land a fund was raised sufficient to commence; a site was selected not far from the ancient village of Pungoteague, a large brick building erected, and the school opened under favorable auspices. It was called "Margaret Academy," in honor of one of its founders. The teachers were cultured gentlemen, and the school was largely patronized by citizens of both counties. Here some of the first men of the Eastern Shore received their rudimentary education, and from it a higher intellectual tone went to all parts of the Peninsula. The school continued to flourish for about fifty years, when it commenced to wane; it was not, however, until the civil war that its influence was badly crippled. Spasmodic efforts have been made to recuperate it; but it never regained its former prestige; while for some years past, scarcely anything has been left but its building, fast going to decay, and the memory of its former greatness.

About the year 1860 a female college was started in the village of Onancock by several gentlemen, under the leadership of the Rev. John H. Phillips; a fine corps of teachers was selected ; large numbers of young ladies from the two counties, and even some from a distance, entered its walls. While the rest of the State was in the turmoil and excitement of war, with the most of the institutions of learning broken up or badly crippled, here, on the comparatively quiet shores of the ocean, a flourishing institution was in full vogue. For some years the school was eminently successful; its course was thorough and practical, and very soon an intellectual influence was felt throughout the county -- especially in its more immediate vicinity -- and much of the social refinement now existing owes its origin to this school. Awhile after the war the school dwindled, until finally it ceased altogether.

Seven years ago a private academy for both sexes was commenced, where the branches higher than those taught in the public schools could be pursued. This school has gone on steadily increasing, and its advantages are being secured to acquire an education at home. The primary and higher branches of English are taught, together with the languages, ancient and modern, mathematics, and music. The school deserves to be ranked as a valuable assistant to the educational progress of the day. Its teachers are two gentlemen and a lady of culture, refinement, and progress, and deserve the hearty support of the community. This much for private schools.

In the early days of the reign of Queen Anne, a philanthropic gentleman, Rev. Samuel Sanford, living at London, came to Accomac, remained for some time, acquired land and slaves, then returned to his native land; but remembering the educational destitution of the poor in the colony, bequeathed by will, dated 1710, and now of record in the clerk's office of Accomac county, a large tract of land, the proceeds of which were to be applied to the education of poor children living in that portion of the county bounded on the north by the colony of Maryland and on the south by a line running from Gargathy Creek, on the seaside, to Guilford Creek, on the bay. This territory embraces an area of about one-half of the county. This land was mostly valuable for its timber, which was sold from time to time; the proceeds, together with the rents of the more arable parts were applied to assist the indigent children in attending whatever neighborhood school which might be accessible. The fund was disbursed by the local magistrates; and to it many a poor child owes the little rudimentary education he or she was able to get.

At the period of the adoption of the public-school system in the county, the Sanford land had been stripped of all its valuable timber and the rents were small. The county-school board determined to apply to the Legislature for an act allowing them to sell the land, invest the funds, and use the interest for the benefit of the public schools in that part of the county designated by Mr. Sanford. The act was obtained, the land sold, and the interest on the proceeds now forms a permanent fund for public-school purposes. This fund is distributed pro rata, as follows: Three-fifths to Atlantic, one-fifth to Metompkin, and one-fifth to the Islands school district. The sale of the land not only secured a larger and more permanent fund for the schools, but enabled many in moderate circumstances to acquire homes and also brought the land under the State laws for taxation, State and county, that never before had been taxed. And now, where but a few years ago was only waste land, much of it under water, there stands the flourishing village of Sanfordville, a fit tribute to the generous donor.

Charles Piper, a gentleman living in Horntown, bequeathed a tract of land for the educational benefit of indigent orphans, living in and within five miles of said village. For fifty years this fund, held by the circuit judge as trustee, was so applied, except at one time $900 was taken to build a school-house. When the public-school system came into operation, the class of children designated by Mr. Piper, educationally no longer existed -- the school law making ample provision for them, and the fund being so tied up by the court as to be of little or no practical benefit to the neighborhood. By request of the citizens living within the designated boundaries, the county-school board applied to the Legislature to take the funds out of the court and place them under the control of said board, to be used for the benefit of the neighborhood, and, if necessary, to build a commodious school house and furnish it with whatever should be necessary for the success of the school. An act to that effect was passed, but the court refused to deliver the funds, under the plea that Mr. Piper's will could not be technically carried out: so that this fund, now amounting to over $1,000, is practically worthless, benefiting no one except the court officers whose duty it is to handle it. Such is a hurried sketch of the schools in my county for the indigent and for the more well to do prior to the adoption of the public-school system. Now a new and broader field is open. No longer the poor have to depend upon the kindness of a few philanthropists or be pointed at as beneficiaries of the Literary Fund. Virginia opens wide her portals and bids all her sons and daughters to the intellectual feast -- one family around one common board, free participants in all its blessings. On the 7th of October, 1870, the county superintendent was commissioned by Gov. Gilbert C. Walker. Immediately afterwards the county was laid off into school districts, trustees appointed, and district boards organized. The following gentlemen were the first trustees: For the Islands District -- John W. Bunting, Charles H. Smith, J. J. English. For Atlantic District -- William D. Cropper, James A. Hall, Rev. Montcalm Oldham. For Metompkin District -- John E. Wise, Levi J. Northam, Parker W. Parks. For Lee District -- John W. Gillett, Edward B. Waples, Thomas H. James. For Pungoteague District -- E. J. W. Read, James W. Edmonds, George T. West.

These gentlemen went into office in January, 1871. In February following the schools went into operation. This year we have 32 public schools. The fear that the poor would be unable to send their children to school during the busy months for farm work was dissipated. The schools were open from February 1st to July, and the legal average was maintained in every school. The best of the private-school teachers with few exceptions, were employed. Some who had been teaching -- keeping school -- for years had to be rejected for incompetency. The first session assured the success of the schools. There were some of the old Berkley school who bitterly opposed free education, but the mass of the people rallied to its support, and the system has steadily gained favor as the years rolled on. In neighborhoods where it was at first difficult to maintain the average, now large and flourishing schools exist. A few particular instances are worthy of citation. For several years two teachers were employed about one and a half miles apart, both getting between them the salary of one, and the two schools combined to make the legal average; now there is in that neighborhood a fine graded school with two teachers, with an enrollment of 97 pupils. Tangier, an island situated nearly in the middle of the Chesapeake bay, with a population of 500 before the adoption of the present system, with scarcely a score of inhabitants that could read and write, now has a graded school of two teachers, with an enrollment of 96 pupils. Chincoteague, a sea island, has a graded school with three teachers and 219 pupils enrolled; another white school on the north end of the island, with 51 pupils, and a colored school, with 37 pupils. On Syke's Island, near the main, there is a school with 35 pupils. Greenbackville, a village on the extreme northeast of the county, that 18 years ago had a single log dwelling, now has a population of about 600 inhabitants and a graded school with two teachers and an enrollment of 112 pupils. These points are cited because, prior to the public schools, no regular school was accessible to the children, and they were generally growing up in ignorance of the simplest elements of education. From 32 schools, in 1871, we have increased to 82 schools in 1885, giving educational advantages to more than 5,000 pupils in attendance. We have now in the county 18 graded schools of more than one teacher.

The opposition to the system has ceased to be openly made, and so great is the popularity of the schools, that should any candidate for popular favor openly oppose them, his defeat would be inevitable.

Our supervisors now give the maximum allowed by law for school purposes, and all things work in harmony. So much for the past.

I would suggest that to maintain our schools for the future, and keep abreast of the times we must have more means. The schools are growing more rapidly than the means to sustain them. The minimum allowed by the constitution might have sufficed in the beginning; it is entirely inadequate now. Our present prosperity will inevitably meet with serious drawbacks unless something is done, and that speedily. Destitute neighborhoods are clamoring for schools. All our schools could be improved; but to stop the clamor, and improve the schools as desired, we must have funds. Should the Blair bill become a law, we could place the schools upon so proud an eminence that their full and entire success would be insured; should it fail, there is trouble in the future. "God save the Commonwealth."

An Eptiomized History of Education in Accomac County, Va.
Virginia Superintendent of Instruction
Richmond, Va.
pp. 48 - 51