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Jim Crow-era champion of Black education celebrated with statue

A statue of a person holding a book
A bronze statue of educational leader Richard A. Tucker was erected in front of Norfolk’s Richard A. Tucker Memorial Library. (Photo: Ryan Murphy/WHRO)

For decades, a school in Norfolk’s Southside bore Richard A. Tucker’s name. 

Last year, a new library in the Campostella neighborhood opened as the “Richard A. Tucker Memorial Library.” And now, a bronze statue of the library's namesake stands in the neighborhood, too.

Tucker — who was born in what is now the Berkley section of Norfolk in 1850 — also dedicated his life to educating Norfolk’s Black community during school segregation.

After the Civil War, he headed to Howard University in Washington, D.C., completing a theology degree in 1874.

Tucker returned to Norfolk in 1876, after a couple of years of mission work in North Carolina, and became the city’s first ordained Black Baptist Minister. Upon his return, he was also hired as a school teacher and settled into a long career in education.

At the same time, things were shifting. The Jim Crow era — the period after Reconstruction when rights were systemically stripped from Black citizens and racial segregation was codified — was dawning.

Norfolk approved plans for its first school to exclusively serve Black children while Tucker was a teacher. When the school opened in 1888, he became the first principal of what was then Cumberland Street School in what is now downtown Norfolk. It was later renamed the S.C. Armstrong School before being torn down.

Tucker helmed the school for 30 years, until he retired due to ill health in 1918. He died six years later, in 1924, at the age of 73. Tucker was such a major figure in Black education that Norfolk named a new school in Campostella after the educator in the 1940s.

Decades later, another son of Berkley became the principal of the Tucker school, which closed in 2011.

Mervin McCoy attended Norfolk’s segregated schools in the 1940s and early 1950s. After military service and a few years teaching in Memphis, McCoy returned to Norfolk and ran the Tucker school from 1976 until 1981. 

“It was my first principalship and it was a very rewarding experience, being able to follow in the footsteps of such a great individual as Richard Allen Tucker,” McCoy said.

He added that everyone in the community, including the students he taught, knew not just Tucker’s name, but his legacy.

McCoy, who is Black, said it’s meaningful to him personally — and  to the community — that Tucker is being memorialized. 

"Tucker is a person that many — not only African Americans, but just many Americans in general — can look up to as an educational leader who did great things during his lifetime,” he said.

Read the original story on WHRO's website.