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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Miss Porter’s School remembered by students; part of city’s history

Glenn Woodell may have only been about 8 years old when he transferred from Miss Porter’s School to a Hampton City School in 1971, nonetheless, he has memories that will stay with him forever. 

As a young student in the private school assembled inside a Tudor Revival style house in what is now the Olde Wythe Historic District, Woodell said one of his fondest memories was being able to see all the activity in the Hampton Roads harbor. 

“I remember one day a helicopter flew by really low and all of us guys got up out of our seats and leaned over looking out the window and Miss Porter whacked me across my back with her swagger stick,” he said. “It was a tightly run school by one woman with her own rules…there was a sense of security.” 

The classes were small with Woodell remembering there being about 10 to 15 students in his class. Carole Phelps Sutton is another alumna of Miss Porter’s who said she had only six students in her 4th grade class and shared a classroom with 3rd grade students. 

Woodell is the founder of a Facebook group where fewer than 40 Miss Porter’s School alumni connect and share what they remember about “Louise,” the well-loved African American maid, French teacher “Madame Stokes,” or the music teacher who’d “play the piano with one hand and turn the pages with the other.”

Having recess in the un-fenced backyard and using the house’s front porch as a stage for kindergarten graduations or school presentations are other memories commonly shared among the classmates.

And also the memory of the school’s headmistress, a no-nonsense type of woman who ran a tight ship. 

Edna Porter Von Schilling was born in 1904 in South Carolina but divorced in Hampton before opening the small private school in her home on Chesterfield Avenue during World War II, according to Carolyn Hawkins, co-author of Hampton: From the sea to the stars, 1610-1985

Hawkins said Von Schilling would’ve opened her school at a time when kindergarten and preschool programs were uncommon so women would open their homes for young children to become socialized and prepared to start school. 

Von Schilling would expand the school when she moved to the more than 3,000-square-foot home on Chesapeake Avenue in 1954 when Bennett said the school opened to children up to the 6th grade. 

There were at least three women in the area who Hawkins said had opened schools in their homes, including Mary McClean Sugden who taught children of Hampton University faculty members in her home on Marrow Street from 1940 to 1954. 

“It wouldn’t be common [for a child to attend these schools] because you would have to be living in a neighborhood where people could bring their child to so you’d have to have a car, you wouldn’t get on the bus to get there,” she said. “You would either have to live close by, have a car or know someone that you would go with, or maybe your parent was one of the helpers or teachers there.” 

As a result of private schools’ population being made up of kids from the neighboring community, they were likely to mirror the demographic of the racially segregated neighborhoods while public schools in Hampton were integrated in the early to mid-1960s. 

Classes at Miss Porter’s School would remain all white until its closing in 1971. 

“With Miss Porter’s, you’re young and naive and if you don’t know about something, there’s no concern about it. So I had no concerns or knowledge of racial tension — I didn’t know anything about it,” Woodell said. 

Bennett said her mother would move from Hampton to be closer to her in Richmond before she died of cancer — just five years after closing the school. 

Von Schilling’s former home is privately owned now and still stands on Chesapeake Avenue where a placard is displayed identifying its placement on the National Register of Historic Places for its early 20th century architecture in the Olde Wythe Historic District. 

“It’s such a part of people’s lives who have lived here for all their life,” Hawkins said. 

Woodell is one of those people who said he’s made lifelong connections through Miss Porter’s School and is continuing his search for fellow alumni. 

“I had playmates and made friends, a couple of them I’m still friends with today who went to that school and other acquaintances who I’m still in contact with,” he said.

Miss Porter’s School alumni can click here to join Woodell’s social media group.

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