Thomas Hunter historical marker unveiled

by Charlie Koenig - Posted on Feb 06, 2019 - 02:47 PM

Photo: Participants in Monday’s unveiling of the Thomas Hunter highway marker included, from left, John Marshall Willis, Howard Hudgins, Tyrone Smith, Leslie Willis, Edith Turner, Amy Hauser, Terry Hearn, Raymond Willis, Cleo Hayes and, in back, Joice Small and Katherine Davis Small. Photo by Charlie Koenig

Participants in Monday’s unveiling of the Thomas Hunter highway marker included, from left, John Marshall Willis, Howard Hudgins, Tyrone Smith, Leslie Willis, Edith Turner, Amy Hauser, Terry Hearn, Raymond Willis, Cleo Hayes and, in back, Joice Small and Katherine Davis Small. Photo by Charlie Koenig

Photo: Katherine Davis Small, above, chairman of the Thomas Hunter School Historic Marker Committee, and Terry Hearn, below, Worshipful Master of Silver Leaf Masonic Lodge #177, were two of the guest speakers at Monday’s Founder’s Day program.

Katherine Davis Small, above, chairman of the Thomas Hunter School Historic Marker Committee, and Terry Hearn, below, Worshipful Master of Silver Leaf Masonic Lodge #177, were two of the guest speakers at Monday’s Founder’s Day program.

Photo:
Thomas Hunter School has a long and proud history, tracing its roots back nearly a century when the Mathews community, with help from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, came up with the money to build the initial four-room schoolhouse for the county’s African American youth.

Now, everybody who drives by the current Thomas Hunter Middle School will be able to read its origin story as well.

The new Virginia Department of Historic Resources historical marker for the school was unveiled at the start of Monday night’s fifth annual THMS Founder’s Day program.

Members of the Silver Leaf Masonic Lodge #177, who were instrumental in raising the money for the marker, participated in the unveiling ceremony, along with members of the Thomas Hunter School Historic Marker Committee.

The idea behind pursuing a state historical marker came about after the second Founder’s Day program in 2015, which honored the legacy of the school’s long-time principal, J. Murray Brooks.

Speaking in the auditorium that now bears Brooks’s name, committee chairman Katherine Davis Small said that, as a history buff, “I was enthralled by the stories that unfolded that night. I heard about the struggles that Mr. Brooks endured to obtain his education—leaving his family and moving to Middlesex because there was no high school for blacks in Mathews.

“I heard about the struggles that he endured in order to provide for his students the opportunities that were lacking in Mathews County during his childhood—obtaining a school bus and driving it himself so that his students could learn, obtaining accreditation for Thomas Hunter, so that his students would have a better chance at pursuing higher education with the diplomas that they have earned here,” Small said.

Her daughter Joice was the school’s SCA historian that year and had the honor of presenting the portrait of Brooks that now hangs in front of the auditorium. After that program, the two began to discuss the beginnings of Thomas Hunter as a Rosenwald School and questioned why there was no marker to commemorate that designation.

They became the first two members of the committee whose work culminated in this Monday’s unveiling. Others on the committee included teachers Crystal Coleman and Edith Turner, student Ashley Cummings, and Amy Hauser. Hauser initiated the Founder’s Day observances in her role as assistant principal of THMS; she is now principal of West Point Elementary.

Hauser returned to take part in Monday’s ceremony, receiving praise from school principal Laurel Byrd and Small for her work in getting this program off the ground.

“Amy Hauser has done such a service to our community by establishing the tradition of THMS Founder’s Day celebrations,” Small said. Byrd reflected on her initial conversations with Hauser in getting the program up and going. “I handed it to our very best person for anything like that, Miss Amy Hauser,” she said. “Thank you for coming tonight and being a part of our Thomas Hunter family.”

Small shared a personal connection she never knew she had with J. Murray Brooks until that 2015 program. Among the stories told that night was one about the daughter of a local waterman who was the first of her family to graduate from high school.

“Apparently, Mr. Brooks could see that she was born to be an educator, and her encouraged her to go to college, despite her own misgivings,” Small said. “His encouragement gave her the confidence to pursue her degree.

“That young lady grew up to be the principal of my elementary school—Mrs. Sallie Foster,” she continued. “She was legendary for knowing every student’s name by the end of the first week of school. We knew that she cared deeply about all of us. Obviously, she learned from the best.

“Mr. Brooks touched Mrs. Foster’s life and she, in turn, touched mine,” Small said. “I felt that night as if Mr. Brooks had given me a precious gift. I still feel that way.”

Small and Byrd said the hardest part of the marker program was limiting themselves to 100 words. As such, the marker tells of the community’s black residents who formed the Mathews Educational League in 1923, raising $9,900 for the school’s construction. It tells of the Rosenwald Fund and it speaks of the school being named after Thomas Hunter, a former slave. It speaks of the school’s accreditation in 1939-1940, the construction of a new brick building in 1953 and the desegregation of county schools in 1969.

Monday’s program also included a prayer of thanksgiving and dedication by the Rev. Desmond Smith, music by Patrick and Carmaleta Billups, the recognition of family members of Thomas Hunter and Thomas Hunter School graduates and brief comments by Terry Hearn, worshipful master of the Silver Leaf Masonic Lodge. The program ended with light refreshments and fellowship.