In our search for the “unsung heroes” of the Brookland Park community, we stumbled upon the autobiography of Mrs. Ethel T. Overby. Below are excerpts about her life that demonstrate just how extraordinary she was and why we have chosen to begin our story with her insights.
“I knew my paternal grandparents well. They were born and reared slaves in Goochland County in Virginia. My grandfather used to tell us stories about slavery. He had to leave the rural area in which he was raised because he would not allow his former Master to whip his children after slavery ended. And that is how my grandparents came to Richmond to live.
I was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1892. The greatest influence in my life was my mother. My mother worked in domestic service which paid $3.00 a week for seven days work – morning ‘till night. She was an unusual woman. She had not had the opportunity to go to school but she was very intelligent. She quoted Biblical teachings for us to live by. There is nothing unusual that I could say about my father. He was born a slave and did not have a chance to go to school. He did menial work like driving a horse drawn cart to various places in the city.
I was an avid reader, but appropriate reading material was not available. The public libraries were closed to us, and there was no library at all in the school. I would pick up any book that I found in the trash and read it. The negro schools were so crowded that one had to go wherever space could be found. I had to walk almost five miles to the old Negro High School. In high school, all of the teachers and principals were white. I graduated 5th in my class in 1910 and decided to become a school teacher.
In the early 1920’s, a college graduate was something very rare in Richmond. The high school for Negroes did not prepare anyone for college. I decided to undertake the problem of a college degree. I explained to the President of Virginia Union University the small salary I was receiving as a teacher, and he agreed to allow me to pay my tuition in installments until I graduated in 1926.
The law did not allow us to attend the University of Virginia to do graduate study, even though it was a tax-supported school. There was no provision in the state for Negroes, therefore, a Negro had to pay rail-road fare, tuition, board and lodging in order to further their education.
During the summer of 1929, I began going to Columbia University in New York City. I stayed with my sister-in-law in the Bronx, who was a widow with four small children. Money was scarce, and I ate cornflakes three times a day. Occasionally I could spare fifteen cents for a lamb stew lunch at Columbia. I took the excursion train to New York summer after summer until I finally received a graduate degree in Supervision and Administration of Elementary Schools.
When I finally graduated from Columbia University in 1933, I was a teacher in the elementary school system with a degree that meant nothing – I received no recognition, and no salary increase.”
After having been a teacher for more than twenty years, in the fall of 1933, Mrs. Ethel Overby finally became the first African American female principal in Richmond serving initially at Elba School. Then in 1950, she became the principle of formerly all white George Thorpe school the year it was converted into a school for blacks and renamed Albert V Norrell Elementary. She served in this role until her retirement in 1958. What happened in that school over those next eight years changed our community, our city and even impacted our nation.