by Shawn Nowlin
Hundreds of students from all backgrounds will attend George Washington Carver Elementary School this year. They will hang out in the lunch room. They will work together on school assignments. Some will even forge lifelong friendships outside of the classroom. Things were a lot different a few decades ago.
Over a 26-year period, from 1940 until 1966, Black children in grades one through twelve throughout Salem attended the Carver School which was part of Roanoke County’s school district at the time. Following court orders to integrate in 1966, Carver officially closed as an all-black school before reopening as Salem Intermediate School a few years later.
Mike Stevens, Salem’s communications director, spent four years writing and producing a 66-minute documentary about the history of the Carver School. After interviewing many former students, parents, teachers and coaches he had roughly 1,000 photographs and 12 hours of video at his disposal.
“My involvement with Carver started when I arrived in Salem in 2008. School Superintendent Dr. Alan Seibert and Assistant City Manager Jay Taliaferro asked me to create a lasting history of the school,” he said. “Many of the people I interviewed died before it was finished, so it was crucial to get their stories before their passing.”
Marylan Harmon was a member of the 1966 Carver graduating class.
“Both of my parents were taught by George Washington Carver at Tuskegee,” she said. “They taught me what the true meanings of determination and drive were at an early age.”
“After Carver, I went on to get my undergraduate degree from West Virginia University. I then came back to Roanoke Valley and taught in the school system for many years before I was encouraged to get both my Masters and Doctorate,” she added.
“My experience as a high school student taught me everything that I needed to know to make it in life,” said Charlie Page who joined the military after graduating from Carver.
For decades, former Carver classmates made it a point to get together on a regular basis.
“We now all get together every two years,” said Esther Paige. “We used to do so every three years but as time has gone by, we have lost our share of fallen classmates.”
Recently, hundreds of former students, teachers and employees gathered at the Hershberger Holiday Inn Hotel to celebrate each other and what they’ve accomplished over the years.
Kristyn Schmidt, G.W. Carver School principal, as well as City of Salem School Board member Artest Ledbetter and Salem Educational Foundation member Tommy McDonald, president, Salem Educational Foundation and Alumni Association was also on hand for the celebrated occasion.
“The history of this school is the foundation for all of us getting together,” longtime community organizer Andre Peery said. “When you are fifty years down the road from high school, life is just a little different. We are still 237 strong in here tonight.”
Frankye Warren, a popular Carver teacher in the 1960s, brought a smile to all by attending the reunion. “She is now 91-years-old and was able to come back and see all of her babies,” said Betty Fennel who is president of the Carver Reunion Association.
When former Carver classmates get together it’s more than just catching up with friends. It’s about rekindling relationships and celebrating their past. Above all, it’s to keep the legacy of the Carver School alive.
“We do that in part by regularly getting together and having class reunions,” Charlie Page said. “Words can’t express just how proud I am of what we’ve all been able to accomplish as a collective.”
For information on how to purchase a DVD copy of “The Carver Project” contact mharmanaka@aol.