A Brief History of Public Education in Portsmouth



I – Historical Background

The present public school system of Portsmouth came into being as the result of an act of the General Assembly, 1869-1870.  Prior to this time, however, a system of primary schools had been established in the City as a result of an act of the General Assembly in 1846.  This act established a system of “free education for all classes”, but required the assent of two-thirds of the electorate of a county or city before it could be put into effect.  In 1848, Portsmouth took advantage of this act by organizing a system of public education and electing a Board, which was given entire control of its affairs.  The members of this first School Board were Captain Samuel Watts, William Cocke, Stephen Cowley, George Chambers, Henry Phillips, Joseph Porter and Robert Scott.  Most of these men who comprised this board were prominent in the business, social and civic life of the City.  The Reverend Dr. Thomas Hume, Pastor of Court Street Baptist Church was elected superintendent for both Norfolk County and Portsmouth Schools.  These schools, like suffrage, were open to all whites under certain conditions.  A small tuition was required of all who were able to pay, the poorer children being cared for by funds received from the sale of the Glebe lands. 
  There were two broad divisions in these schools corresponding somewhat to our present primary and grammar grade departments, with each further divided into male and female sections.  The primary section was taught in the basement of the old Court Street Baptist Church on the same site upon which the present church stands.  The second or grammar grade section was taught in the Masonic Temple, which occupied the site upon which the present Masonic Temple stands.

     Superintendent Hume evidently was a progressive educator, as we have a record of his attending the National Teachers’ Meeting in Philadelphia in 1850 in an effort to glean new ideas and to become informed concerning the best practices of the time.

     The schools of Norfolk County and Portsmouth were without doubt operated along the most progressive lines of the times, as William Maddox in his book “The Free School Idea in Virginia Before the Civil War”, tells us.

     “The Free School Systems established in Norfolk, Elizabeth City, Princess Anne, Northampton, King George, Albemarle, Accomac, Washington, Ohio, Kanawha and Jefferson Counties and in the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Fredericksburg and Wheeling were typical of the best American education development of the times.”

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