The Establishment of the Public School System in Virginia


The first statewide system of free public schools in Virginia was established in 1870 after the ratification of a new constitution and was one of the most important and enduring accomplishments of Reconstruction. Prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), education had been reserved mostly for elite white families; Virginia had no statewide system of free public schools. In Virginia, the education of free and enslaved African Americans had been discouraged and, in some forms, made illegal. After the abolition of slavery, the federal Freedmen’s Bureau established the first statewide system of schools, but only for African Americans; other, biracial systems were set up, but only in Petersburg, Richmond, and Norfolk. The new constitution created a new statewide system that, in spite of protests by African American members of the General Assembly, segregated black and white students. The first state superintendent, William Henry Ruffner, set about building the system’s infrastructure—creating more than 2,800 schools and hiring about 3,000 teachers by August 1871—and building political support for its funding. In debates over how to pay off Virginia’s large antebellum debt some politicians advocated reducing funding for public schools, although the system became more stable when the biracial Readjuster Party took over government in 1881, appointed R. R. Farr superintendent, and increased appropriations. By the turn of the century, public schools had attained broad social and political support.


Virginia Constitutional Convention

Before the Civil War, Virginia had no statewide system of free public schools. In the 1780s and 1810s the former governor Thomas Jefferson recommended creating a statewide school system, and the governors David Campbell and James McDowell made similar recommendations in the 1830s and 1840s. But the Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830 refused even to debate a proposal that the state take responsibility to educate its children. White Virginians who could afford it hired tutors or sent their children to private schools. By the middle of the nineteenth century numerous academies for both boys and girls operated throughout Virginia, and some Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal churches sponsored schools. The General Assembly did little more than authorize counties to establish schools for educating paupers. That system, some Virginians complained to the assembly in the mid-1850s, “has been a failure. It has failed to enlist public confidence, because it has failed to confer public benefits … The poor parent, too often ignorant of the blessings of learning, erects a barrier of pride against the progress of his child. He refuses as a gift, what he would gladly use as a right.” Among Virginia’s local governments, Norfolk County created a public school system in 1845, and the neighboring city of Norfolk created its own system in 1850.
The Freedman's Spelling Book.

The state actively discouraged the education of enslaved Virginians. The General Assembly never made teaching individual free or enslaved African Americans illegal, but it outlawed schools for them. In 1831 the assembly made it a criminal offense for any person to receive a salary for teaching enslaved people, and it prohibited assembling classes of free African Americans for the purpose of teaching them. Soon after the Civil War began four African American women established two schools in Alexandria and another founded a school in Hampton. In 1862 a formerly enslaved man from Petersburg opened Virginia’s first high school for African Americans, Beulah Normal and Theological School, in Alexandria. With the support of other black Virginians, Northern service agencies such as the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society, the Pennsylvania Freemen’s Relief Association, and various religious charitable organizations founded schools for freed people in Virginia and sent white and black teachers to the state.

Richmond Colored Normal School

In March 1865 Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau, in the Department of War. Its agents created schools for freed people, the first statewide school system in Virginia. A majority of the teachers were African American, but some were white, and some who moved to Virginia to teach remained in the state after the Freedmen’s Bureau ceased operating schools in 1869. The bureau spent more than $200,000 on Virginia schools, which enrolled nearly 33,000 students. Petersburg created a racially segregated public school system in 1868, and Richmond in 1869, but in 1870 those and the Norfolk schools were still the only public schools in the state.

New Constitution

In 1867 Congress required Virginia and most of the other former Confederate states to hold conventions to write new state constitutions. The constitutional convention met in Virginia from December 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868, and the new constitution, ratified in July 1869, included an article for the state’s first system of public schools. Two dozen African Americans, some of them formerly enslaved, served in the convention, as did several white Virginia Unionists who had embraced radical reform and other men who settled in Virginia during and after the war. The majority favored significant reforms to Virginia’s political and social systems and placed the establishment of a system of public schools high on their agenda. They granted adult African American men the right to vote and believed that voters should be educated.

Practical Illustration of the Virginia Constitution

The new constitution required the General Assembly at its first session after ratification to elect a superintendent of public instruction and to establish “a uniform system of public free schools, and for its gradual, equal, and full introduction into all the counties of the state” by 1876. The constitution provided for a state board of education consisting of the governor, attorney general, and superintendent of public instruction and for the popular election of three school trustees in each township in each county. The constitution authorized the assembly to tax property to pay for the schools, devoted proceeds from the state’s old literary fund to the schools, and permitted counties to lay additional taxes to supplement state appropriations.

Convention delegate Thomas Bayne, who had escaped from slavery in the 1850s but returned to Norfolk before the end of the Civil War, introduced an amendment to the education clause requiring the schools to be “free to all classes, and no child, pupil or scholar shall be ejected from said schools on account of race, color, or any invidious distinction.” The amendment to prohibit racial segregation failed by a vote of 56 to 15. Rejection of the amendment legally left the question of segregation unsettled, but in practical terms it meant that unless the General Assembly decided otherwise the schools were certain to be segregated.

First Year

William Henry Ruffner

On March 2, 1870, the General Assembly elected William Henry Ruffner superintendent of public instruction and directed him, as the constitution required, to submit within thirty days a plan to create the public school system. The report he signed on March 28 closely followed the prescriptions in the new state constitution and provided initially for “a system of elementary education for children and youth, and of normal schools for the training of teachers.” With assistance from the University of Virginia law professor John B. Minor, Ruffner drafted a bill to create the state board of education, empower it to appoint all county school superintendents in the state, and set qualifications, duties, and salaries for superintendents, teachers, and school trustees. The bill enabled counties to levy taxes to provide additional revenue to support the county’s schools. Ruffner’s bill also required racial segregation of the schools. The assembly revised and passed the bill, and Governor Gilbert C. Walker signed it on July 11, 1870.

African Americans in the General Assembly supported the bill, but shortly before it passed J. B. Miller Jr., an African American member of the House of Delegates, made a motion to delete the requirement for racial segregation. The motion failed, and then most of the African Americans voted against passage of the bill as their only means of objecting to what they believed was a denial of rights of equal citizenship they had gained with the abolition of slavery and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Illiteracy. Compiled from 9th Census.

The Census of 1870, completed a few days before the assembly passed the school law, disclosed how poorly educated most Virginians were at that time. About 44 percent of all people in the state older than ten could not read. One of four white Virginians older than ten and nine of ten African American Virginians older than ten could not write. The state then had 2,024 schools (including the public schools in Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk) and only about seven offering education above the elementary level. Fewer than 60,000 white people and only about 11,000 black people had attended any school in Virginia the previous year, when the Freedmen’s Bureau schools closed.

During the summer of 1870, Ruffner and the board of education appointed county school superintendents and 1,400 district school trustees pending the elections the constitution required. The first few schools opened in November. Voters in seventy-three counties agreed to tax themselves to provide more money for the schools, but in twenty-five other counties proposals to provide more money failed to pass. By the end of August 1871 Ruffner and the superintendents had created more than 2,800 public schools, of which more than 700 were for African Americans, and hired more than 1,600 white male teachers, more than 900 white female teachers, more than 300 black male teachers, and more than 150 black female teachers. The schools enrolled about 90,000 white children and 40,000 black children for an average instructional term of four and a half months. The state spent about $450,000 on the schools, but additional county appropriations and money from such foundations as the Peabody Education Fund allowed for a total expenditure for the public schools the first year of $587,472.39.

Some white Virginians opposed public education as an unnecessary innovation, as too expensive, because they disliked paying for the education of freed people, or because they believed it unfair for the state to tax prosperous people to pay for the education of poor children. The new system was, indeed, expensive, and the constitution and laws imposed new taxes on incomes and owners of land to support the system, which raised tax rates by about 20 percent. At the end of the first full year of operations in 1871, Ruffner complained that the schools had received about $175,000 less than anticipated and required.

Building Support

Educational Progress in Virginia—The Schools for Colored Children in Richmond.

Ruffner tirelessly and forcefully promoted the public school system, earning himself the nickname “the Horace Mann of Virginia,” after the founder of public education in New England. From the beginning many political leaders opposed public education, especially for African Americans. Ruffner tried to persuade them that it was not unfair to tax prosperous people to pay for the education of poor people because education was good for the society as a whole. He also had to combat objections that Virginia’s tradition of separation of church and state would require public schools to omit religious and moral instruction. He concentrated on the economic and moral benefits of education. Nothing, Ruffner asserted, “brings back a larger or surer return of prosperity, than the money expended in the education of the people; and this it does by drying up the great source of crime and pauperism, and by quickening the mind, and thus quickening and guiding the hand of every worker in the land … Nothing is so costly as crime, and ignorant, thriftless labor … Universal suffrage simply necessitates universal education.”

Public Free Schools!

By 1877, the year after the constitution required that schools be established in every county, Virginia had 3,442 public schools enrolling nearly 140,000 white students and 1,230 schools enrolling about 65,000 black students. Total expenditures on the schools that year (as for the three preceding years) exceeded $1,000,000. Ruffner had complained from the very beginning that teachers’ and superintendents’ salaries were too low to attract and keep the highest quality educators, and he advocated increased funding for public education throughout his tenure, but the state diverted money from education and other programs to pay interest on the public debt. Throughout the 1870s the school system should have received from $300,000 to $450,000 more each year than it did. As early as 1874 Ruffner complained in his annual Virginia School Report:

The temptation, at such a crisis as this, is to make the present amount of revenue go farther, nominally, by curtailing the superintendence, or else by shortening the school term, or both: in other words, to depreciate the value of the schools in order to get more of them. This would be a practical fraud, which could not be connived at by honest minds, if the injurious consequences are understood. There always have been good men who advocated this sort of economy, but they did so only because they had not studied out its destructive effects. A little poor schooling is simply a waste of time and money. Every intelligent man knows that five months is too short, not too long, a school term for the year; and that we need more and better, not less and worse, supervision for our schools.

The General Assembly nevertheless drastically slashed the school budget from more than $1,000,000 in 1877 to $570,000 in 1879. About half the schools in the state closed, their teachers lost their jobs, and half the students in the state received no education. By then both the state’s political parties had divided into two factions. Funders insisted on paying full interest on the public debt regardless of the consequences to the schools, and Readjusters insisted on reducing both the rate of interest and the amount of the principal to be paid in order to restore money to the education budget. Readjusters framed the political choice facing voters this way: should their tax money be spent to support the schools and for the benefit of the children, or should it be paid to out-of-state and foreign speculators?

John Warwick Daniel

In 1878 the assembly passed a bill to require that school taxes be collected in money (not in tax-receivable coupons clipped from state bonds issued to pay the debt) that could be devoted exclusively to the public schools. One member of the Senate of Virginia, John Warwick Daniel, denounced the bill as a clandestine means of cheating the state’s creditors. “He said,” according to a newspaper report, “he would rather see a bonfire made of every free school in the State, and a bonfire then made of his own home” than see the bill enacted and reduce revenue available for paying the creditors. After the bill passed, Governor Frederick W. M. Holliday vetoed it and denounced the public school system. “Public free schools are not a necessity,” he proclaimed. “The world, for hundreds of years, grew in wealth, culture, and refinement, without them. They are a luxury, adding when skilfully conducted, it may be, to the beauty and power of a state, but to be paid for, like any other luxury, by the people who wish their benefits.”

Readjuster Ticket.

African American voters overwhelmingly favored the Readjusters and the schools, and many thousands of lower- and middle-class white voters did, too. In the 1879 legislative elections Readjusters won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, and in 1881 they also elected the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. In January 1882 the Readjuster majority in the General Assembly appointed R. R. Farr superintendent of public instruction in place of Ruffner. During the next two years Farr and the Board of Education replaced almost every county school superintendent in the state with men firmly committed to public education for both black and white children. Even before the General Assembly adopted a new debt payment law in 1882 that freed up money for the schools, Readjuster legislators increased appropriations to the schools, allowing most of the schools that had closed to reopen.

Certificate from Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute

During Farr’s four years as superintendent of public instruction, the General Assembly’s reform of the state’s finances enabled it to increase appropriations for public schools. The state expanded and improved the school system, acquired and constructed school buildings at an increased pace, hired more teachers, and improved their pay. Enrollment grew from about 162,000 white students and 77,000 black students in 1881 to 197,000 whites and 111,000 blacks in 1886.

At the Turn of the Century

School Interior

The public school system had gained a firm foundation of political support in the 1880s. Determined voters of both races repeatedly defeated political candidates who were willing to starve the school fund (or burn the schools) in favor of paying the state’s creditors. Political leaders did not always appropriate enough money to erect enough good school houses or pay teachers what they may have deserved, but thereafter none of them was openly hostile to the system. Important though the school system was, it failed in part through inadequate funding to provide education to all eligible Virginians. The 1900 federal census reported that 33.1 percent of white children ages five to nine and 68.5 percent of white children ages ten to fourteen had attended school the previous year. Because few white children lived near a high school and because many of them had jobs, only 27.3 percent of white Virginians age fifteen to twenty had attended school. For African Americans the numbers were lower: 23.9 percent of children ages five to nine, 57.2 percent ages ten to fourteen, and 18.4 percent ages fifteen to twenty. Illiteracy had dropped from 40.6 percent of the population older than ten in 1870 to 22.9 percent in 1900. Males and females suffered from approximately equal rates of illiteracy (23.2 percent of males and 22.5 percent of females), but rates were notably higher for African Americans, with 44.6 percent of people older than ten classified as illiterate.

In spite of its inadequacies, the public schools had educated thousands of Virginia’s children and by the end of the nineteenth century appeared to many people to be the best hope for the future of Virginia. Thirty-one years after the first public schools opened, William Henry Ruffner proudly commented that “the people are more sensitive in regard to any tendency toward weakening the school system than on any other subject—more so than on suffrage or the race question in any form.”

The General Assembly makes it a criminal offense to receive a salary for teaching enslaved people and prohibits assembling classes of free blacks for the purpose of teaching them.
The county of Norfolk establishes a public school system.
The city of Norfolk creates a public school system.
Virginia's first high school for African Americans, Beulah Normal and Theological School, opens in Alexandria.
March 3, 1865
An act of Congress establishes the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau) within the War Department.
The city of Petersburg establishes a public school system.
The city of Richmond establishes a public school system.
July 6, 1869
Voters ratify the new Virginia constitution that requires the General Assembly to create a statewide system of free public schools.
March 2, 1870
The General Assembly elects William Henry Ruffner to serve as the superintendent of public instruction.
July 1870
The General Assembly passes An Act to Establish and Maintain a Uniform System of Public Free Schools; the law requires racial segregation in the schools.
November 1870
The first few state-mandated public schools in Virginia open.
August 1871
By the end of this month more than 2,800 public schools have been established in Virginia, more than 700 of which are designated for African Americans. They enroll about 90,000 white students and 40,000 black students.
By this year Virginia has established 3,442 public schools enrolling nearly 140,000 white students and about 65,000 black students.
The General Assembly reelects William Henry Ruffner as superintendent of public instruction.
The General Assembly drastically slashes the public schools budget from more than $1,000,000 in 1877 to $570,000. About half of all public schools close.
About 162,000 white students and 77,000 black students are enrolled in Virginia public schools.
January 13, 1882
The General Assembly elects R. R. Farr the state superintendent of public instruction.
About 197,000 white students and 111,000 black students are enrolled in Virginia public schools.
  • Buckley, Thomas E. S.J. Establishing Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Statute in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013.
  • Fraser, Walter J. Jr. “William Henry Ruffner and the Establishment of Virginia’s Public School System, 1870–1874.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 79, no 3 (July 1971): 259–279.
  • Jones, Catherine A. Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015.
  • Link, William A. A Hard Country and a Lonely Place: Schooling, Society, and Reform in Rural Virginia, 1870–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
  • Moore, James Tice. Two Paths to the New South: The Virginia Debt Controversy, 1870–1883. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
  • Ruffner, William Henry, and R. R. Farr. Annual School Reports, 1871–1885.
  • Tarter, Brent. A Saga of the New South: Race, Law, and Public Debt in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.
APA Citation:
Julienne, Marianne & Tarter, Brent. The Establishment of the Public School System in Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/public-school-system-in-virginia-establishment-of-the.
MLA Citation:
Julienne, Marianne, and Brent Tarter. "The Establishment of the Public School System in Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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