Principal remembered at Johnson-Williams School Reunion
WINCHESTER — The former students of Johnson-Williams High School have never forgotten the principal who never gave up on them.
On Sunday, alumni from the former all-black Berryville school placed a flowered cross at the grave of Raymond Ratcliffe Sr. in Milton Valley Cemetery.
Ratcliffe died in 1986 at the age of 77.
He was principal of the school — which had previously been called the Clarke County Training School and W.T.B. Williams School — from 1961-1965.
After desegration, the school was called the Clarke County Intermediate School and later renamed Johnson-Williams Intermediate School.
Today, the building on Josephine Street serves as apartments for seniors.
The original grade school for black children, Josephine City School, still stands next to the former Johnson-Williams School and is today the Josephine Street School Museum.
As it does every two years, the Johnson-Williams Alumni Association had its reunion. There was a banquet Saturday at the Best Western Lee-Jackson in Winchester. On Sunday, there was a picnic at the Josephine Street School museum prior to the wreath-laying.
The Rev. Lawrence Wilson Jr., a senior pastor at Sylvannah Praise Worship and Healing Center in Rippon, W.Va., spoke at the graveside ceremony. The cemetery is adjacent to the museum.
“We didn’t understand at that time that somebody from the hillside of West Virginia could come to a little place called Berryville [and] have such an impact on us, but that’s what he just did,” said Wilson, a 1964 graduate of Johnson-Williams. “What I liked about Mr. Ratcliffe was the fact that he never gave up on any of us. He saw hope in us when there was no hope ... He saw the vision and purpose that God had in place in us when we didn’t even know ourselves.”
He told those gathered around Ratcliffe’s grave that they didn’t thank their old principal enough. On Sunday, he hoped their thanks would reach his spirit in heaven.
Although he often found himself in trouble while at the segregated school, alumnus Paul Jones later went on to become a teacher and then a principal. He was a 1964 graduate.
Today, young people’s concepts of segregated schools are “vague,” Jones said.
“They hear about it, but they don’t know about it,” he said. “I enjoyed [my time at Johnson-Williams], but then I didn’t know any different.”
Ratcliffe was “like a father,” Jones said.
“He was like a counselor,” he added. “He was like a warden. And, he was like a friend. All those things rolled up into one person.”
Jones described the school as “the nucleus of the black community.”
“It was where people met with community problems of all sorts, and the community, the parents, were extremely involved in the school,” he said.
Geneva Jackson attended Johnson-Williams during the day and then went to a Clarke County farm where she was a live-in cook. She said she loves to cook.
“That’s my gift from God,” Jackson said.
She’s only missed one reunion.
“That was the night my granddaughter was married,” Jackson said. “Next year, our class, we will be celebrating our 60th anniversary. We do something every year.”
The Berryville resident is a member of Help with Housing, which together with City Lights converted the old school into 40 apartments. Jackson is proud of the housing.
“It’s a real nice place,” she said. “I love it. We’re glad it’s in use because it sat vacant for seven years.”
While he wonders what he may have gone on to do if he had attended college, James Sloane did pretty well for himself, especially considering he left school in 1956 — two years shy of graduation.
“I just left school and went to work,” he said.
Sloane first worked at Winchester Memorial Hospital as an orderly.
“That’s where I got most of my education,” he said.
Sloane later worked for a drugstore. He helps organize the Johnson-Williams reunions.
“I think it’s important,” Sloane said. “It shows the history of the school and everything, the teachers and a lot of the students that went on to better [themselves] and everything.”
Millwood native John Jackson now lives in Newington but always comes back to Berryville for the reunions. The reason is simple, according to the 1962 graduate.
“Because it’s home,” he said. “It’s family.”
— Contact Sally Voth at firstname.lastname@example.org