For the first time in nearly 60 years, long after the building closed its doors, alumni of the Sunset Hill School in Strasburg boarded a bus on Saturday afternoon to transport them to the former elementary school that served African-American students in segregated Shenandoah County.
It was a short drive across town from Strasburg’s town hall to 348 Sunset St., but it was a powerful one that marked a key moment in the town’s history. At the end of the trip sat the dilapidated remains of what was once the all-Black school and a historical roadside marker whose unveiling was the reason for Saturday’s two-hour ceremony.
That ceremony began next to the town hall in Market Square. Over 100 people gathered on the lawn to hear the history of Sunset Hill and celebrate the meaning behind the historical marker’s dedication. It ended at the old school with the alumni breaking into a round of singing and clapping after the marker’s unveiling. Then they posed for a group photo with the building that holds both fond and troubled memories.
“We’re here today to celebrate,” Marquetta Mitchell, a Sunset Hill alumna, told the crowd at the start of the two-part ceremony, which was part of an effort that began 12 years ago when alumni of Sunset Hill and its precursor, Queen Street School, partnered with the Strasburg Museum and the town to figure out how to better tell a story that was “lost for a long time.”
Mitchell noted that few, if any, official records of Sunset Hill exist, and to the best of anyone’s knowledge the building, which Mitchell said also served some Latino students, opened its doors around 1930, a year after the Queen Street School “mysteriously” burned down in 1929.
The names of students who attended both schools and the teachers who taught there are only recognized through memories, oral history and memorabilia such as old report cards and certificates, Mitchell said. When Sunset Hill closed in 1964, a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation of public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, Mitchell said, “its history was barely recognized as having ever existed.”
The historical roadside marker, which was approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in June, is meant to educate as well as acknowledge the experiences African-American students and their families endured in Strasburg during the period of racial segregation.
Mitchell described an unenviable situation confronting Black youth in that time, including a lack of transportation to and from the school, which served grades one through seven. Educational buildings and resources were “substandard, inadequate and often described by many alumni as deplorable,” she said.
“But it was here at Sunset Hill School that we alumni experienced some of our greatest joys, as students whose parents, teachers and community prepared us for the life to come,” Mitchell said. “They knew how to teach us the skills that we needed to be resilient in spite of the mountains they knew we had to climb.”
As part of the ceremony, nearly 20 alumni walked one-by-one across the stage set up in Market Square and announced their names, an official proclamation of their attendance of Sunset Hill.
Mitchell also acknowledged the students at Signal Knob Middle School, who in 2018-19 took the initiative to pursue a landmark recognizing Sunset Hill School, which spurred the alumni organization’s application for a historical marker through the state’s Highway Historical Marker Program.
“Acknowledging the story, telling the story and then embracing the story can be an uncomfortable process,” Mitchell said, “but we’re going through that process, the town of Strasburg. When we acknowledge the story or the truth of the story, somehow it begins to clear the air so that we can begin to risk having conversations, risk asking questions. When we acknowledge the story, we can begin to embrace the stories, and often embrace stories that are different from mine and different from yours.”
Saturday’s ceremony included a round of remarks made by guest speakers including U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Lexington, Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Johnston and Strasburg Town Council member Emily Reynolds.
Cline called the Sunset Hill story an important one told not simply by a historical marker but through the stories of alumni.
“Events like these are so critically important as we strive to preserve our nation’s history and work to ensure that we never repeat it,” said Cline, adding that there is still more to be done in the fight for racial equality.