Johnson-Williams reunion honors former principal

Posted: July 5, 2013

The Winchester Star

Ann Wilson Clark holds a T-shirt and wears a visor with the names of the schools in Berryville. A reunion will be held this weekend of graduates of Johnson-Williams High School. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
This page from a 1950s era Johnson-Williams School yearbook shows Principal Raymond Ratcliffe (right).
This is a 1963 photo of Johnson-Williams School graduate Ann Wilson Clark receiving her diploma from Principal Raymond Ratcliffe at Johnson-Williams High School in Berryville.

Winchester — In one sense, the reunion held every two years by Johnson-Williams Alumni Association is much like any other, member Paul Jones said.

People talk about the clubs they were in, the sports they played, or things they did with friends. They catch up with old friends, talk about jobs or retirement, and show off pictures of their children or grandchildren.

All of those are true for the students of Johnson-Williams High School, the former all-black school in Berryville, but at their reunion, there is always one subject guaranteed to come up — the late Raymond Ratcliffe Sr., former principal, said Jones, class of 1964.

“Our time at Johnson-Williams, when we look at the person at the helm, we start with Mr. Ratcliffe,” said Jones, 69, of Clarke County. “We give him a lot of credit for the things the students at Johnson-Williams turned out to do.”

Ratcliffe, who died in 1986, will be honored at this years’ reunion, which will take place at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Best Western-Lee Jackson in Winchester. The dinner and dance costs $40.

A picnic will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Josephine Street School Museum, 303 Josephine St., Berryville. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony at 3 p.m. at Ratcliffe’s gravesite at Milton Valley Cemetery next to the museum.

Saturday’s reunion will be a full-fledged party, including a cocktail hour, dinner, and an honors and awards program, Jones said. The evening will end with a dance with live music by Bruthas Plus One performing popular songs from the 1950s and later.

Reunion numbers have been dwindling through the years as alumni died, moved, or were unable to make it, he said. Attendance numbers that once swelled to 300 now reach about 150.

This year’s program is special because of the portion of the program honoring Ratcliffe, whom the alumni still talk about with reverence and respect, said Ann Wilson Clark, class of 1963.

Ratcliffe was principal from 1961 to 1966, when the schools were integrated and he was named director of federal programs for Clarke County, she said. He held that position 10 years.

“During his tenure at Johnson-Williams, a lot of the students saw him as a mentor,” said Clark, 68, of Severna Park, Md. “I think he saw his purpose as being able to help everybody be successful.”

He was also an activist who stood up for the rights of anyone he thought needed his help, said Doris Green, class of 1953.

“He defended the rights of all people,” said Green, 78, of Millwood. “A lot of things Clarke County may have gotten away with if Mr. Ratcliffe hadn’t stepped in and righted a lot of wrongs.”

He also wasn’t afraid to rock the boat, said Billy Mason Dennis, 63, of Berryville. She remembers him scheduling a basketball game between his school’s team and an all-white team. “That just wasn’t done then.”

Ratcliffe was also active in the community in organizations such as the NAACP, Tri-County Virginia Opportunities Industrialization Center, the Elk Club, and the alumni association, Jones said. He lived in Clarke County until his death in 1986.

Recognizing the former principal at a Johnson-Williams reunion was a long time coming, Jones said. Organizers thought it was appropriate this year with the Josephine School Community Museum celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.

The Josephine City School was the precursor to Johnson-Williams, serving black children in the area through grade school starting in 1882, said Helen O. Carr, president of the museum’s board.

She is on the program at the reunion to talk about what the museum has accomplished in the last decade and its plans for the future.

“The year the museum was established, we were on the program at the reunion. It is almost a given,” she said. “They have the picnic up there because of the connection. Many of the alumni are supporters of the school.”

As part of the program for the evening, the association will also recognize William and Mattie Cross and Pam Ross Banks.

Mattie Cross was a teacher in the Winchester and Frederick County school systems before she retired, and her husband was a local farmer, Jones said. The couple, who still live in Clarke County, were also active in the community and at their church.

Banks is being honored for starting her own business in Clarke County, Ministering Angels, a health service agency, he said. “She had a challenging time getting her business started but she never gave up.”

That is an attitude the association likes to honor to show good can come out of hard times, which Johnson-Williams was a symbol of, Clark said. Times were not easy for black students growing up in Clarke County, but they persevered, and there were definitely good times, too, she said.

Until the 1920s, any black student wanting to receive an education past grade school had to stay with relatives in a big city and attend high school there, Jones said.

In 1925, the African-American community of Josephine City petitioned the Clarke County school board for funds to build a school for their children, he said. They were given permission but had to raise their own funds to build the school at 301 Josephine Street.

In 1930, the Clarke County Training School was completed and became the only black high school in the county, he said. The school was expanded in 1944 and had its name changed to W.T.B. Williams to honor a Clarke County native who served as Dean of Tuskegee Institute.

From 1949 to 1966, the school was known as Johnson-Williams High School, in honor of Williams and the Rev. E.T. Johnson, principal of the school until his death in 1944, Jones said.

The class of 1966 was the last all-black class before desegregation, he said. The high school became Clarke County Intermediate School and then Johnson-Williams Intermediate School in 1971.

In 1987, it was closed as a school because it was considered “no longer fit for students,” Green said. The building was converted into apartments for senior citizens in 1992. The Johnson-Williams name transferred to the present middle school at 200 Swan Ave. in Berryville. That building served as Clarke High School for many years.

Information

The Johnson-Williams Alumni Association will hold a reunion at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Best Western-Lee Jackson in Winchester. The dinner and dance costs $40.

A picnic will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Josephine Street School Museum, 303 Josephine St., Berryville. There will be a wreath laying ceremony at 3 p.m. at the grave of Raymond Ratcliffe Sr.

For tickets, call Jones at 540-955-0011.

 

— Contact Laura McFarland at lmcfarland@winchesterstar.com.