Glen Bowman: Douglas sought to better education for African-Americans

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This column has tried to bring back to collective memory some long-forgotten but significant people who had some ties to Elizabeth City State history. Some figures left large footprints, even though time has covered them up. Winston Douglas is one of those individuals.

Born in 1895 in Danville, Va., he graduated in 1917 from Lincoln University, Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he was inducted into Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Soon after, he came to Elizabeth City State Normal School to teach mathematics and science. In addition, he led the athletics program to its first golden age. Although Elizabeth City State football can be traced back to 1912, the team had its best years after Douglas became coach. In 1919, the football team had its most successful season ever up to that point.

After staying in Elizabeth City for several years, Douglas moved back to Virginia, where he spent the rest of his career. He became dean at St. Paul’s Normal School, Lawrenceville, Va. Later named St. Paul’s College, it closed in 2013. In 1927 he was made principal of Norfolk’s Booker T. Washington High School. Known as the “Mighty Booker T,” it became legendary in Hampton Roads history as an institution at which many African-Americans succeeded, partly due to Douglas’s firm hand. He was principal for 34 years. Although the school was eventually desegregated, unlike most historically black high schools, it still exists as a high school.

Being a principal at the black high school during Jim Crow could be tough, sometimes because it required the ability to attract financial resources while also placating the whites who controlled the public purse strings. In the late 1930s, as president of the black Virginia Teacher Association, Douglas called for higher teacher pay, for the elevation of teachers “to a place of self-respect.”

That said, Douglas urged them eventually to accept an offer from the City of Norfolk that increased their salaries but did not completely equalize them. The city had promised to build additional schools and a hospital for the black community, and Douglas presumably wanted teachers to settle so the city would not be tempted to renege. The NAACP strongly disagreed with such thinking. This so-called “teacher equalization” campaign was a small step on the long road to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1932, Douglas and physician John Givens started working toward establishing public higher education for Norfolk-area African-Americans. Three years later, in September 1935, that initial discussion became a reality. In a YMCA building, with 85 day students and 47 evening students, the Norfolk Unit of Virginia Union University opened. Over the years that junior college became known as Norfolk State University, complete with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs.

Douglas and his spouse Nellie raised two children, one of whom became a prominent Norfolk physician. Winston returned to Elizabeth City to be the keynote speaker at Founders Day, 1953. He died in 1977.

Glen Bowman’s book Elizabeth City State University, 1891-2016: The Continuity of a Historical Legacy of Excellence and Resilience is available at the ECSU Office of Institutional Advancement, the ECSU bookstore, and at the Museum of the Albemarle gift shop.

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