Education for African Americans: The struggle to attend school

Earl C. Clay, Sr., Principal of former Bolling High and Elementary Schoo bwl
Earl Charles Clay, principal of Bolling High School. Bolling became a full 12 grade high school under Earl Clay in 1935.


There is an old joke, likely in all cultures and times, about the older folks trying to impress the younger ones with how hard they had it when they were young. One version goes, “When I was young I had to walk to school barefoot, through the snow, and uphill both ways.”

From Apr. 7, 1869, when the Board of Education for the township of Lewisburg acquired a building for the purpose of a free school for African American children, to the rocky course of actual integration in the 1950s this struggle was all too true.

And in the end, it was people who made the difference. People such as Professor Edward A. Bolling who, in a biography posted on the WV Archives and History site, was noted to have been an educator in this area for over 40 years.  He was born in Greenbrier County on Nov. 28, 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. He grew up in Richmond and was graduated from Morgan College in Baltimore, MD. In 1877, after teaching in Richmond for four years, he returned to Greenbrier County where he was appointed principal and teacher at the Lewisburg Colored School.

The WV Archives and History site indicates that “For five consecutive summers, 1910-14, Prof. Bolling was one of the instructors in the State Summer School for colored teachers at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. In 1915, he was granted a State Life Certificate by the West Virginia State Board of Education. This Board is composed entirely of white men who are among the leading educators of the State. This high honor has been conferred on only a comparatively few white persons and on only about ten colored men of the entire State. In Mr. Bolling’s own county of Greenbrier only two white and no other colored persons have been awarded this honor.”

Professor Bolling was so well respected that, in 1933, Earl Charles Clay, then principal, renamed Lewisburg Colored Junior High School as Bolling Junior High and Elementary School, after its original principal. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1939 and rebuilt and opened again in the fall of 1941. In 1935, Bolling became a full 12 grade high school and was one of only four African American high schools in the entire State of West Virginia.

Earl Charles Clay was also impressive, having received his secondary education in the high school department of West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State College, and his college education in the same institution, graduating with the degree of Bachelor of Science in 1930. In the summer of 1940 he enrolled in Virginia State College to work toward the degree of Master of Science in Education. (From the biographical sketch taken from his dissertation and transcribed by Carol Haynes.)

His father, Dr. Samuel Clay was a physician in Lewisburg. Dr. Clay practiced out of his home on Walnut Street and had an office over the Pioneer drug store in downtown Lewisburg.

The “Invisible Roots and Legends: A Photographic View of African American History in Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia” exhibit which will be held at the Cooper Gallery from Sept. 20 to Oct. 4 will consist of a collection of photographs and artifacts, from post-civil war to today, of African Americans, such as the three above, who have contributed to the growth and development of this area in business, religion, education, sports, politics and entertainment as well as general family life.

Sponsored by the Cooper Gallery, the Greenbrier Historical Society and Curator Janice Cooley, the exhibit will present information and also encourage viewers to share information they may have about African Americans in the Greenbrier Valley before it is lost.

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