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African-American Education in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County

The Freedman's Bureau

Providing an education for slaves was frowned upon in antebellum Virginia. In truth, state law made the practice a crime. The Freedmen’s Bureau was begun during the latter part of the Civil War to help provide some education for black military units. After the war, the bureau and the Christian Commission helped start “mission schools” for the children of ex-slaves throughout Virginia. These charitable groups were responsible for the first schools in Bridgewater and Harrisonburg. They also helped pay the teachers and find suitable buildings to use as schoolhouses.


The first African-American school in Harrisonburg (1868) was held in a hotel room, and the first teachers were two ladies from Maine hired through the Freedmen’s Bureau. The next school location was in a church on West Market Street. When the statewide system of public education began in Virginia in 1870, the Freedmen’s Bureau was no longer needed. The state system of “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites took over educational responsibilities. The first building erected solely for black children was located along Black’s Run about 1870. The four-room Effinger Street School built in the northern part of the town in 1882 replaced this schoolhouse. The Effinger Street building had a three-room addition added about 1910. The Lucy Simms School, named for the ex-slave who had been born on the Gray farm at the north end of Harrisonburg and taught in the Effinger Street School for over 50 years, was built in 1938 as a modern design to replace the Effinger School.

Rockingham County

Because the African-American population was so widely scattered in Rockingham County, schools for the children got off to a slow start, except in Bridgewater (1868). There were eventually 16 schools for African-Americans in the county, although they were not all in operation at the same time. The schools, nearly all one-room structures, and their approximate opening dates were as follows:

Athens (Zenda) north of Harrisonburg before 1877
Bridgewater 1868
Briery Branch 1885
Broadway 1882
East Elkton (Newtown) ca. 1885
Elk Run early Elkton by 1871
Georgetown north of Harrisonburg before 1885
Greenwood north of Elkton before 1885
Harrisonburg ca. 1866
Island Ford before 1885
Leroy north of Grottoes before 1885
Linville 1875
McGaheysville 1875
Mt. Crawford 1885
Peake west of Mt. Clinton ca. 1885
Pleasant Valley 1885
Port Republic ca. 1881
Shendun (Grottoes) ca. 1895


In the twentieth century, many of the small, country schools were closed so that by mid-century all African-American students in the county were transported to Harrisonburg and its Lucy Simms School for their high school classes, and many received their elementary education there as well.

All photos on this page courtesy of Dale McAllister.
Greenwood: Photo2993
Grottoes: Photo2991
Pleasant Valley: Photo2990
McGaheysville: Photo2992
McGaheysville (old): Photo2989
Bridgewater: Photo2986
Newtown: Photo2987
'Old' Newtown: Photo2988