Park School celebrates legacy of racial harmony and integration in an era of ‘massive resistance’

Park School hosts its second annual all-school reunion Sunday Sept. 3, 2017, at Park View Mennonite Church from 4-7 p.m. Built by Eastern Mennonite School in 1918 to educate children of faculty and staff and provide pre-service teachers with practical experience, it was taken over by Rockingham County Schools in 1921 and closed nearly 50 years later. With a primarily Mennonite student body, faculty and administration, the site was the first local school to integrate African American students in 1964. (EMU Archives)

On Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, Park School in Harrisonburg hosts its second annual reunion, with special guests to highlight the school’s unique role in local racial integration during the time of “massive resistance,” a state-sponsored effort to defy federal court orders to integrate Virginia schools.

The school was built in 1918 by Eastern Mennonite School with two goals: to educate the children of faculty and staff, and  for student teachers to gain practical experience. It was taken over by Rockingham County Schools in 1921, but had a primarily Mennonite student body, teaching faculty and administration.  A new three-room schoolhouse was built in 1929 to accommodate a growing student body.

For more information, visit the school reunion website.

In 1964, the school welcomed the five Ewell siblings, who had moved from Farmville to a home on South College Avenue. The neighborhood was then located in Rockingham County.

This was during a time when Prince Edward County Schools, following a state policy called “massive resistance,” had voted to close their schools rather than integrate. The father, Samuel Edward Ewell Sr., had lost his job as a teacher of math, history and English and the children had lost a year of schooling.

When the Ewell children came to Park School on the first day of classes, then Principal Jon Bender, a ’62 graduate of EMS, didn’t waver.

“He actually called the School Board and said he had five black children and asked what he was to do with us,” Margaret Ewell, 63, said in a 2016 Daily News-Record article. “He stated, ‘I will not send them home.'”

That history will be celebrated at a program and potluck meal on Sunday, Sept. 3 from 4-7 p.m. at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg. All former students, staff and the public are welcome.

Myron Augsburger, president emeritus of Eastern Mennonite University, will offer the keynote address. Special guest Beau Dickinson, coordinator of social studies at Rockingham County Schools, will also speak. Dickinson is coordinating a study of the era, and will be accompanied by former students from Farmville.

This is the second annual reunion. The first, held in 2016, was also organized by the five Ewell siblings.

According to a Daily News-Record article, Samuel and his wife Lucille moved into the white community and sent their children to a white school as a way of promoting peace between whites and blacks.

“We were an experiment, kind of,” Margaret Ewell said. “Our mom and dad chose a safe environment. They knew that we would be safe and happy.”

After the school closed, nearby Eastern Mennonite High School held industrial arts classes there. The building was razed in April 1990 to make way for Park Woods Apartments.

For more information about the program and meal, call Elizabeth Rohrer at 540-908-5086 or visit www.parkschoolreunion1967.com