Wythe then and now: two alumni reflect on the state of their school
The Rev. Robin Mines remembers the respect she and her classmates had for her high school in the 1970s.
“We had a school seal that you weren’t even supposed to walk on in the front of the building,” Mines said. “We were taught that from the upperclassmen when we first got to George Wythe, and we followed it.”
At the time, the building wasn’t that old; Wythe High School for the Arts, named after jurist and teacher George Wythe, initially opened as an all-white school in 1960. But it was first integrated in 1970, when busing was federally ordered to integrate Richmond’s schools. That was 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education, six years after the Civil Rights Act federally mandated desegregation in public education and a few years before Mines attended.
Mines had heard from some upperclassmen that the first few years of integration at George Wythe were tense. Newspaper articles from the Richmond Times-Dispatch during the first week of school in early September 1970 detail scuffles between Black and white students at bus stops and instances of “fights, ‘bumping,’ spitting and abusive language” in schools on Richmond’s Southside.
Mines remembers boarding one of two packed city buses to attend what was then Elkhardt Middle School, now slated for demolition, during that first year of court-ordered busing. She says students had to buy their own bus tickets at first.
“We pulled into a lot filled with at least 20 or more yellow school buses full of white kids yelling all kinds of things. It wasn’t all of them, because we got to connect with some,” Mines said. “I was shown what racism is all about, even from teachers.”
Despite the unrest, Mines made the most of her high school experience at George Wythe.
She still has multiple mementos from her time as a Bulldog including her letter jacket, and her senior yearbook, the Chancellor. Her list of clubs and activities – which Mines says helped her stay focused on school – is impressive: marching band, concert band, men’s varsity basketball scorekeeper, varsity basketball, track and field, field hockey, German club, history club, homeroom representative, senior class vice president, SCA representative for student government and a member of the school newspaper, the Wythe Ledger.
Mines says the curriculum was unbelievable. The school didn’t have a football stadium, but Mines said it had just about everything else.
“Latin was on our curriculum, Russian…you name it. I took German two years,” Mines said. “We had doctors come out of our class, lawyers. We had a great, well-rounded education.”
But articles from the Richmond Times-Dispatch detail efforts by school, city and state officials to derail court-ordered federal desegregation into the 1970s.
Reports also document pushback from white parents, many of whom quickly fled to the neighboring suburbs. A September 1970 RTD article reported that white student enrollment in RPS that year was already down by about 14%, part of a “white boycott” of integrated schools, with most of the withdrawn white students located in the West End or part of the Southside recently annexed from Chesterfield County.
The trend of white students leaving city schools continued throughout the decades, shifting Wythe’s demographics.
A fall 1971 RTD article said the student population at Wythe was around 80% white at the time. Three decades later, in 2003, George Wythe students were 95% Black.
When Reverend Mines stepped foot in George Wythe again in the early 2000s, she was shocked to see the state of the school building: cracked and stained walls and ceilings, missing ceiling tiles, leaks.
“They didn't take care of these buildings,” Mines said. “No upgrades, no nothing. Not past putting in air conditioning. You know how long ago that was?”
Mines founded the George Wythe Alumni Association in 2009, which she ran until 2016. She also served as the school’s PTA president from 2015-2017 and remains connected with the community. She still lives next door to where she grew up in South Richmond.
But the state of the school’s facilities haven’t changed much since Mines observed seriously-needed improvements decades ago. She points to pictures taken on the first day of school this past fall that show garbage cans collecting water leaking from the ceiling.
Records obtained by VPM News detail pages of requests for repairs at George Wythe over the last year. The school’s gym heater went out last December on the night of a big game. There have been multiple requests filed to fix a freezing cold gym since then, not to mention reports of classrooms without heat while other classrooms reported “extreme high temps.”
And there are reports of ceiling leaks popping up everywhere: in classrooms, in the hallway, in the library and in the cafeteria, where it was reported to be “virtually raining from the roof.” Some leaks were identified as structural roof leaks.
That’s not to mention reports of asbestos on ceiling tiles, a roach infestation and mice.
“You got rats running around, teachers having to clean off rat feces and urine from areas so that they can get their work done… teachers finding that a mouse has been in their purse while they're sitting there,” Mines said.
“You’ve got kids with all kinds of health conditions, because they live in horrible conditions. You want to bring them to a school that only reminds them of the misery that they have at home?”
Tisha Erby is another George Wythe alum, who graduated in 2007. She’s a “proud Bulldog” who radiates pride for her alma mater.
At Wythe, Erby says she was a teacher’s pet. She was also involved in dance, on the cheerleading squad and the football team’s manager. She has so much school spirit that she says she wishes she could go back and be a student again. She plans on restarting a PTA at the school when her son starts at Wythe next fall.
“I'm gonna be that parent to give a lot of love,” Erby said.
She jokes about befriending rats in the school building as a student, even naming one after a teacher, Peter, because he dubbed the rat a class pet.
“We were never scared of them [rats] when we see them. Like basically, they were scared of us. So they run around, but they got so comfortable,” Erby said.
Erby’s tone changes when she thinks about her own son attending the same school she attended in its current condition. The auditorium chairs are broken, she says adding that students shouldn’t see roaches and other critters like she did as a student.
“It hurts my heart to see the school like this,” Erby said. “We have students with high GPAs graduating from this school, learning well in school but we can't have decent chairs, a decent building. The building might be cold, the building might be hot, we have mold, the ceilings are leaking.”
She wonders why Wythe has had to wait so long for a new school, and why the community is still waiting. She came up with the “Wythe Can’t Wait” slogan, and made matching gear: masks, T-shirts, sweatshirts and more to demonstrate the urgent need for a new school.
Erby has been advocating for a 2,000-student new George Wythe, but for now, is content with a recently-struck compromise to end a monthslong dispute. Richmond School Board Chair Shonda Harris-Muhammed recently voted to support an 1,800-student school, and the City Council is slated to vote on an ordinance next Monday that would authorize funding to begin design work.
With a larger school building, Erby says perhaps some technical classes could be offered in the same building so students wouldn’t have to travel back and forth as often. Even though she enjoyed occasionally traveling to a tech center for graphic design classes while she was a student at Wythe, Erby says, “you shouldn't have to be there all day [at the technical center].”
Mines also supports a larger school building and worries that an 1,800-student school will soon become overcrowded. The proposal before City Council stipulates that the new George Wythe should be built so that it could be expanded in the future to accommodate more students if needed. Mines says a larger building would help keep kids in school and reduce out-of-school suspensions.
“We need that space, because we don't want kids crammed into each other,” Mines said. “We need an area so that we don't have to force them [students] into the street for petty fights.”
While she says it’s nice to see community organizations create fundraisers to help replace equipment lost in the Fox Elementary fire, Mines wonders aloud: “When are we going to start supporting our other schools that have dilapidated stuff? We have to wait for a tragedy to come together and help?”