The self-help philosophy of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which opened in 1868, was an important influence in Central Virginia. By 1890, one third of Lynchburg’s African American teachers were Hampton graduates. Nearly all of Central Virginia’s early schools for African Americans emphasized vocational education just as Hampton did. The emphasis on vocational education reflected the view that job opportunities for African Americans would continue to be limited.
As teacher training at normal schools enlarged the pool of black teachers, African American teachers gradually replaced whites. Most African Americans preferred that their children learn from other African Americans. African American educators like Frank Trigg, Jr., Amelia Perry Pride, Virginia Cabell Randolph, and Susie Gibson made important contributions to the education of Central Virginia’s black children.
Despite African Americans’ eagerness for education, black schools were poorly funded. In rural Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, and Campbell counties, many schools were little more than one-room shacks, and almost no education was available beyond the elementary level.
In Lynchburg, conditions in the black schools were better but still poor. Schoolrooms were so crowded at Polk Street School that it gained the affectionate nickname “the Chicken Coop.” Lynchburg’s black citizens frequently petitioned the school board for more and better schools.
During the second decade of the twentieth century, pressure mounted in Lynchburg for a new high school to replace the one on Jackson Street. In 1920, as a result of petitions and lobbying by the black Common Weal Alliance, the school board agreed to build the new school.
Dunbar High School opened on Lincoln’s birthday in 1923. For nearly five decades it would be a source of accomplishment and pride for Lynchburg’s black community.