Early Years and Family
Virginia Randolph was born in Richmond in May 1870 to Nelson Edward Randolph, a bricklayer and Richmond native, and Sarah Carter Randolph, a domestic worker and native of Campbell County. Her parents, both formerly enslaved, raised four daughters: Mary, Virginia, Sarah, and Emma. Although Randolph’s birth date is commonly given as June 8, 1874, the birth register for the Bureau of Vital Statistics for the City of Richmond reveals that her actual birth was in May 1870. This earlier birth year is also supported by the Freedman’s Bank account entry for Nelson Randolph, wherein he reports having two daughters, Mary and Virginia, in 1871. According to Randolph, her family suffered a major loss when her father died in 1874. Her youngest sister, Emma, was just one month old at the time. Her mother taught her daughters to knit and crochet and the importance of cleanliness.
Randolph attended Baker School, the first public school built for black students in Richmond, after the formation of thein 1870. She furthered her education at Richmond Colored Normal School, a noted secondary school founded in 1867 under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau and , who served as the leader of the educational component of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia for most of its tenure. The school’s rigorous curriculum included physical geography, botany, civil government, physiology, and map drawing. It had a normal, or teacher preparation, component and a model school. Among its many notable graduates were James Hugo Johnston Sr., , , , , and Wendell P. Dabney. Randolph’s attendance at the school ended prior to her graduation.
After Randolph’s father died, her mother remarried twice, according to census records. Her first stepfather was carpenter Joseph Anderson, and the second was Joseph Minor, a laborer. By 1890 the family lived at 813 West Moore Street, directly across from her family’s church, the Moore Street Missionary Baptist Church. Organized in 1875, the church had the Moore Street Industrial School on its grounds by 1879. This school was created to teach black children the manual arts such as sewing, carpentry, and printmaking, in addition to offering academic courses. Randolph’s exposure to this school in her youth, coupled with the handiwork taught by her mother, most assuredly influenced her philosophy during her career as an industrial arts educator. Randolph remained a faithful member of the church until her death.
Educator and Innovator
Randolph reportedly began her teaching career in Goochland County in or about 1890. By 1893, she was teaching in Hanover County, and she was elected to teach at the one-room Mountain Road School in Henrico County in 1894. The school, located on a red clay hill, was in disrepair. Undeterred, Randolph set out to beautify the school and its surroundings by whitewashing the building, planting flowers, and purchasing gravel with funds from her own meager salary. Randolph traveled to homes throughout the county to recruit students and enlist the assistance of parents. She worked to instill the importance of both cleanliness and learning to use one’s mind and hands. Randolph also organized Willing Worker Clubs and school improvement leagues to encourage communities to support their schools. These coalitions fostered a sense of pride, self-help, and collectivism, and raised money that could be funneled to assist schools. Although some parents resented her teaching the manual arts along with the usual subject matter, Randolph remained resolute in her belief that these lifelong skills needed to be introduced to students at the elementary level because of limited opportunities for black students to acquire a secondary education.
Randolph truly believed in educating the spirit, hands, mind, and heart. She organized afternoon Sunday school services at the school and enlisted the services of her pastor, the Reverend R. O. Johnson, as well as students and faculty from Virginia Union University. Her extraordinary efforts did not go unnoticed by some of the most influential and progressive white citizens in the area and the state. Theand families liberally supported her efforts. Jackson Davis‘s 1905 appointment as supervisor of Henrico County Schools proved fortuitous in amplifying the awareness of her methods and the interracial cooperation shown in elevating educational opportunities for young black people.
Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute
Henrico County had more than twenty black schools; Randolph traveled to each one weekly and assisted teachers in creating senior and junior clubs in each community to support the schools. The summary report of Randolph’s work after her first year was favorably reviewed, and her efforts became known as the Henrico Plan. Dillard made a thousand copies of it and sent them to supervisors throughout the South.
Randolph’s travels and sphere of influence were not limited to Henrico County. As the first countywide Jeanes teacher, she was required to travel throughout Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia to train other educators and assist in organizing school improvement leagues. By 1910, Randolph was determined to raise the funds necessary to build an industrial arts high school in her county. After raising the money via private subscriptions and events, she purchased property, which was deeded over to the Henrico County School Board. Although her attempt at the first secondary training school for black students in the county did not have sustained success, in 1915 the Virginia E. Randolph Training School was named in her honor on the grounds of her old one-room school.
Social Uplift, Community Health Advocacy, and Organizational Leadership
Much like her contemporaries Rosa L. Dixon Bowser, Janie Porter Barrett, and Maggie Lena Walker, Randolph was deeply involved in social welfare initiatives, juvenile justice reform, and community health. Although she did not marry or have biological children, she raised many children as her own. It was previously believed that she primarily boarded children who traveled from other states or locales to attend her school; recent research, however, reveals that she took in youngsters whose parents could not care for them or who were referred to her by the justice system. Working closely with the Richmond courts, Randolph took children in and boarded more than fifty foster children in her home over her lifetime, according to family sources. Of all the children who boarded with her, only Carrie B. Sample was officially adopted, according to Randolph’s obituary.
Along with Bowser, Walker, and others, Randolph worked in tandem with organizations that sought to foster protection and rehabilitation for juveniles who had run afoul of the law. One organization integral in this endeavor was the Virginia Industrial School for Wayward Colored Girls in Hanover County. Founded by Janie Porter Barrett and the Virginia Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, this institution provided instruction in domestic sciences, the manual arts, and farming. Randolph was appointed to the board of this state-run institution after the death of Maggie L. Walker.
Randolph was a founding member of the, founded by and others at Hampton Institute in 1912, and was appointed to its executive committee in 1934. This umbrella organization sought to uplift the living conditions of black people around the state. Its motto, “Better Schools, Better Health, Better Homes, and Better Farms,” describes its major initiatives in public health and continuing education for black educators and farmers. In 1917, Randolph became a founding member of the Colored Branch of the Red Cross, an affiliate of the whites-only Richmond chapter of the organization. She was appointed chairman of the committee in charge of food supplies. Randolph was also instrumental in securing the appointment of a black visiting public health nurse in Henrico County during this period.
The Negro Organization Society worked closely with the Virginia State Teachers Association (VSTA), the largest black professional organization in the commonwealth during this period. VSTA’s initiatives included equalization in pay as well as expanding public health coverage for rural and urban areas around the state. Randolph served as VSTA vice president for several years.
Later Years and Legacy
Randolph received major awards that fostered national recognition of her achievements. Nominated by, a noted white leader in the and the State Board of Education, Randolph received the first William E. Harmon Award for Distinguished Achievement in the field of education. This honor came with a $400 cash award and a gold medal. In 1937, Jeanes teachers throughout the South raised thousands of dollars to establish the Virginia Randolph Fund to both honor her and support rural education initiatives. This fund was administered by the Southern Education Association. In 1938, Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) awarded her a Certificate of Meritorious Service for her contributions to education.
Honoring Virginia Randolph
In 1933, in assessing the impact of her contributions to education, Samuel Chiles Mitchell, a professor at Richmond College (now the University of Richmond), stated, “Her work ranks with that of. It has lacked the spectacular element that attaches to the great principal of Tuskegee; but in significance it surpasses, in some ways, even his achievements. Virginia Randolph has done the common thing in an uncommon way.”