Emmett Jafari, 67, and his teenage granddaughter, Mariam Jafari-Nassali, both take pride in the education they received in a building at the corner of Leigh and Lombardy streets named for a Richmond civil rights pioneer.
But their experiences, separated by five decades that saw a thriving Black school shuttered after integration and then effectively resegregated as a predominantly white school for gifted children, could not have been more different.
Maggie L. Walker High School was a place to belong for Jafari, a 1972 graduate who was class president and played in the Armstrong-Walker Classic, a storied rivalry among Black high schools that drew thousands of Richmonders to City Stadium for decades.
He loved walking through the doors of a school named for Walker, a Richmond native who fought for social justice and taught before going on to become the first Black woman in America to charter a bank.
“We knew that we were going into a school not just named for an African American, but named for an African American who actually dedicated her life to Richmond,” Jafari said.
That safe haven for Black students in the early 20th century, shuttered after schools integrated, now houses a program that for decades has faced allegations of elitism and racism — a place Richmond parents whispered about as an end-run around the city’s public comprehensive high schools for white families of means, who would send their children to private middle schools and on to Walker, where they received a top-tier education without the tab.
School leaders say they want to do better. This year was the first in the past two decades at Maggie Walker that the majority of students selected weren’t white. Conversations about building a more equitable institution predated a reckoning in the aftermath of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last year.
But as public scrutiny intensified on race, space and belonging, current and former students cite missteps and false starts as the school’s largely white leadership has tried to engage with students who reflect the surrounding community.
Meanwhile, Jafari’s granddaughter, who is among the Black students making up 7% of the school’s enrollment, has had her struggles.
“It was kind of challenging when I started school as a freshman, because it was pretty hard to find people who look like me,” Jafari-Nassali said. “Not only students who look like me but also teachers.”
This three-part series, produced as part of reporter Kenya Hunter’s participation in an Education Writers Association mentorship program, examines the lack of diversity at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School and others across the state.
Black residents of Jackson Ward had mixed feelings in the 1990s when then-City Councilman Tim Kaine proposed moving the nascent regional magnet school program from the top floor of Thomas Jefferson High School to the shuttered former Maggie L. Walker High.
Of 70 students who enrolled when the program launched in 1991, only 15 were Black. The director of the school at the time, Steve Ballowe, told The Richmond News Leader that the lack of diversity wasn’t the school’s fault.
“We can only take what the school systems prepare,” he said.
Kaine, now a U.S. senator, thought restoring the boarded-up building, which had closed at the end of the 1989-1990 school year, would restore civic pride. Decades later — after sending some of his children to the school — he stands by the decision but has other concerns.
“If you’re an alum, and you’re proud of your school, and you drive by it every day and it’s closed ... with graffiti on it, that hurts,” Kaine said in an interview. While Kaine is proud of the renovation, he regrets its diversity numbers.
“There’s many things about Maggie Walker I’m proud of. I’m not proud of that,” he said.
The site has been grounded in Black history for more than a century. It previously was home to Hartshorn Memorial College, a school launched in 1883 for Black women that merged with Virginia Union University in 1932.
Virginia’s 19 governor’s schools are largely lacking in socioeconomic and racial diversity, according to state demographic data, which shows the highest rate of Black students at any governor’s school is about 26% — which is at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg — despite Black students accounting for 22% of public school enrollment statewide.
At only two of the 19 governor’s schools does Black enrollment exceed 22%. Black students account for less than 10% of enrollment at 12 schools, and less than 5% at eight.
Nationwide, Black and Latino students don’t have equitable access to gifted programs, various studies show, and neither do poor students, who are more likely to be students of color in Virginia.
Now, in hopes of boosting diversity and removing barriers at Maggie Walker, the school’s 14-member regional board is considering a revamp of its admissions policy to include removing a standardized achievement test that its planning committee finds more exclusionary than helpful in predicting who will succeed.
Last year, there was dissent among Maggie Walker board members over waiving the in-person, two-part admissions test, with one member expressing reservations about diversifying. The school systems that feed into the governor’s school are in charge of the selections process, not Maggie Walker; the school has control only over the staff, admissions materials and the culture of the school itself.
Targeting that culture is a key element of a strategic plan the board has adopted, which drew criticism from some governor’s school alumni for a lack of metrics, leaving them to question its utility.
J. Maurice Hopkins, a Maggie Walker High School graduate who often funds reunions for the segregated school, has attempted to refer students of color to the school’s administration, often with no luck.
“I’ve met so many white people whose children have graduated from the governor’s school. They’ve gone on to Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia even, and have achieved great things in their lives,” Hopkins said. “But you don’t hear from Black students or Black parents because they may exist, but they’re few and far between. Why? Because the percentage was too low for you to recognize that there was an opportunity for their kids to come into school.
“It’s insulting,” he added.
As the mostly white regional board of the school has pledged anti-racism, students and alumni — tired of waiting for change — made moves on their own. Students and alumni took their grievances anonymously to Instagram last year on a page titled “POCatMLWGS,” or People of Color at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School.
On the page, one 2016 alum said white students said the N-word at a party for no reason.
Another described a white English teacher “fetishizing” Black people and Black culture, and embarrassing the only Black student in her class by asking them to “tell the class what happens when your hair gets wet.”
Rashad Seaborne, a Black 18-year-old Maggie Walker alumnus from Petersburg who graduated in June, said the tension caused by the social media page was thick, even as school was virtual. The racial injustice and constant discussion of it got tiring, and he wanted to actually do something about it. So he asked Bob Lowerre, the director of the school, if he and his friends could lead a roundtable talk about race to “clear the air.”
“It really fell through. We wanted it to be a student-led thing that people felt comfortable going to,” Seaborne said in an interview. “We didn’t get any correspondence on that, and then they came up with this little talk thing.”
The mostly white counseling department at the governor’s school, he said, ended up leading a conversation about race, and it wasn’t anything like Seaborne and his friends envisioned.
“I know they understand what’s going on, but I don’t think they understand it as well as a person of color would,” he said. “Especially a student, when there’s things being spoken about how we felt, and how people of our color are being treated in the world.”
Lowerre, who is white, said he was aware of what Seaborne was speaking of, and regretted not paying him as much attention as he did two other students of color who helped lead the conversation. He did emphasize that he wants students of color to lead the efforts and is working to diversify a mostly white staff.
Jafari-Nassali said she’s learned very little of any anti-racism efforts happening at the school, even as she is one of the students they directly affect.
“I just think this anti-racist journey is kind of weird,” she said. “My experiences, like my race and identity as a whole, is this topic of discussion and it’s just kind of weird to watch. It’s like just watching them talk about us because there are so few Black students in attendance at the school.”
Lowerre admitted that the school never deeply investigated the claims on the page, but he said he had very frank conversations with some of the teachers who were prominently named on the page.
“I didn’t investigate, per se, but I will say that there were a couple teachers that were named specifically, and they came into my office on their own, over the course of the summer, and were very upset,” Lowerre said in an interview. “Shockingly, not at the fact that they were identified, but the fact that they never thought that they were doing that.”
No one’s employment was terminated because of the claims. However, the school is working on its own cultural competency training through professional development led by officials at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Lowerre doesn’t think he has any teachers at the school who would intentionally harm students of color, but also doesn’t think white people will learn anti-racism on their own.
“I believe firmly ... none of them would want one of their children to feel uncomfortable in their class. I firmly believe that,” he said. “I also firmly believe that none of them would intentionally say or do something to make a child feel unwelcome in the class.”
The damage, however, might already be done. Jafari-Nassali said the Instagram page gave her an idea of who to look out for.
“Because it was my first year, I hadn’t had those experiences yet or hadn’t met those teachers yet, or been in the classroom environment yet, so I thought it was all helpful,” she said. “It gave me some kind of insight on what to look out for or what to avoid.”
During his graduation at Virginia Union University’s Hovey Field, where the Armstrong-Walker Classic first took place, Seaborne said he found himself unsurprised, but disappointed, that his classmates didn’t know about the significance of having their outdoor graduation there. It’s a part of his school’s history.
“We go to the school and we don’t even know about the school,” Seaborne said. “They don’t teach it to us. They’re sort of like, ‘Oh, by the way, Maggie Walker was this,’ but class time is not devoted to it.”
Lowerre confirmed that the legacy of Maggie Walker is not a stand-alone course, but said U.S. history teachers may be covering it on some level more than they once did. During freshman orientation, a park ranger from the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site comes and speaks with students about Maggie Walker’s legacy. Prior to the pandemic, the freshman class would go to the Maggie Walker historic home in Richmond in October.
Jafari-Nassali shared similar sentiments about how history is taught at the governor’s school, criticizing it for being Eurocentric.
“It’s supposed to be international studies, but it just really seems focused on Europe, and America, and colonization,” she said. “Not even colonization, but just colonizers. And the white ones. Not Japan, or anything like that. The curriculum itself could also be adjusted.”
In a survey conducted by the Maggie Walker Black Alumni Network, a group formed after Floyd’s murder, students and alumni said the lack of teacher diversity contributed to a lack of inclusiveness.
Data from a state report shows that 72% of the faculty at Maggie Walker is white, 6.6% Black and 1.8% Hispanic as of this school year. More recently, Lowerre promoted Lisa Williams to assistant director of the school, the first Black woman to hold the role, who has played a large part in what school officials hope will be a cultural shift.
A lack of diversity persists across Virginia governor’s school faculties, according to state data. All faculty members are white at six of the 19 schools; 15 of the 19 have faculties that are at least 80% white.
Zoe Spencer, a sociology professor at Virginia State University who specializes in diversity, said it’s clear that students of color are in an environment that doesn’t affirm their identities.
“There seems to be a very obvious perception students of color, Black students in particular, are existing and matriculating in an academic environment that is not conducive to their cultural actualization,” she said in an interview. “It is not racially informed. ... It really looks like the teachers and administrators are not trained in cultural competency, culturally competent teaching, and are not really meeting the cultural and racial needs of its Black students.”
In a course catalog for the 2020-21 school year, none of the social studies classes is dedicated to Black history.
There are classes dedicated to European, East Asian and Virginia history. One class, Advanced Placement Comparative Government and Politics, studies political frameworks of various countries, including Nigeria, Mexico and Great Britain. Just one literature course is focused on Black writers, Survey of Twentieth Century African-American Writers.
Jafari-Nassali also noted that in 10th grade, she had a Black teacher for history and really enjoyed it.
Lowerre says he has reflected on how many students of color don’t see themselves in the curriculum.
The school sits in the historically Black Carver neighborhood adjacent to Jackson Ward, once known as Black Wall Street for its thriving businesses — including Walker’s.
As the area has changed, he has contemplated how they can incorporate Walker’s legacy into the curriculum.
“She’s an integral part of what we’re doing,” Lowerre said in an interview from his office, which overlooks Interstate 95, which bisected the neighborhood in the 1950s, displacing Black residents.
Some of the easy things have been done: They’ve moved artifacts from the old Black high school from the third floor to the entrance of the school’s auditorium on the first floor, where students arriving from more than a dozen localities — as far away as King and Queen County — walk in each school day.
But Lowerre said he can’t integrate Walker’s legacy into the fabric of the school without the support of alums of the high school.
Like the original Maggie Walker High, its colors are still green and white, and it’s still home to the Dragons. However, there has “been no intentional effort” to connect the history of the former high school with the governor’s school, Lowerre said.
“The history gets lost. ... I have found that most of the alumni from Maggie Walker High School, there’s a degree of resentment that they have that the school has become what it is ... but I have found that if you ask them, ‘Can you help me? Can you come talk to me? Can you come talk to some kids?’ every one of them will do it,” Lowerre said.
Jafari believes the school has a long way to go before it can rebuild trust in the Black community in Jackson Ward.
“There are a lot of Richmonders who remain offended by the oasis that has been set while city schools and city students are suffering,” Jafari said. “They’re bused in from all of these places. ... That’s so antithetical to what the original school was, which by its own inception, naturally gave back to the community, built community [and] sent our citizens back into the community. That’s not what’s happening there now.”
Seaborne said that all in all, his experience at Maggie Walker prepared him for a lot. He was grateful to meet people from across central Virginia and also believes the school prepared him for his time at Virginia Tech, where he’s a first-year student. But he doesn’t think Maggie Walker herself would be proud of what the school has become.
“She would be disgusted, to see what the school has come from, to go to what it is.”
READ PART TWO OF THE SERIES
In 2010, Tiyanna Stewart was the only Black student from Chesterfield County Public Schools selected to attend the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s…
READ PART THREE OF THE SERIES
After racial justice protests gripped the country and politicians pledged progress, Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni felt confident …