Growing up in a small town I would hear some of the same stories over and over again, and the majority of those stories were in some form or fashion about W. F. Branch High School. My parents grew up in the Jim Crow segregated south. So during their youth, there were two schools in Newport, a school for black children, W. F. Branch and a school for white children, Newport Schools.
To say education is important in my family would be an understatement. My grandmothers were both college educated black women during a time when not many black people, especially women were going to college. Education for a lot of my family started at Newport Colored Schools (later named W. F. Branch). My Granny, Gladys Denson Mays, her siblings, and my parents all attended Branch. My Granny was also a teacher there. So W. F. Branch is just as much a part of my genealogy journey as the people that I research.
Just a little background on Branch, Newport Colored Schools started providing elementary education to Black children in 1881. Grades eight through twelve were added between 1925 and 1948. In 1954 the school name was changed to W. F. Branch in honor of former principal, William Franklin Branch. The class of 1970 was the last graduating class of W. F. Branch High school. August of 1970 Branch High closed and Newport Special Schools were completely integrated. The two schools didn’t merge into one new school with a new name, new school colors, a new mascot, or new traditions. The black students and staff just started going to the white school down the street that kept the same school colors, mascot, and traditions it had during segregation. In my opinion Branch and Newport Schools never actually integrated in the true sense of the word because the fundamental principles and traditions of Branch didn’t become a part of Newport Schools. Those principles and traditions did live on in the heart and soul of the black students, staff, and residents. In 1987 former Branch High School students and staff formed an alumni association and organized the first Branch High School reunion in 1988, and the reunions have continued through today.
Branch was always a topic of conversation, but there was some extra buzz in the air in 1988. The grown folks kept talking about having a reunion during Labor Day weekend. I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time, but I did know that the grown folks were sure excited. I remember people coming over to my Granny’s house and they would talk about this reunion for hours. I now know that they were planning the first reunion, and it was a big deal. Everywhere I went that spring and summer, school, church, baseball games everyone was talking about the Branch High Reunion. I remember that summer there were fewer people visiting Newport, and I now know it was because they had planned their summer trip for Labor Day instead of the 4th of July.
My Granny had all the yearbooks that were printed from Branch on a little stand in the living room of her house. That summer she and her friends would go through the yearbooks looking up information, and I was their little helper. I would bookmark pages, sort the yearbooks, and read out the names of different staff and students. I don’t remember much about that first reunion. But I remember there were a lot of people in town that weekend and my Granny and parents were busy throughout the weekend.
I didn’t attend Branch High, but I too have memories of the school and what it meant to my family and to our community. Even after Branch closed it remained an important part of our community. The reunions brought people together, and it was during those summers that I was able to learn more about my grandmother, my parents, our community, and other relatives as people got together and talked about Branch High School. Branch Alma Mater chorus: “Dear Branch High school, school of my childhood days so fair. Alma Mater, we’ll praise your name everywhere”. I’m not sure if my Granny knew when she wrote the Alma Mater just how true those words would be throughout the years. Even now that the school has been closed for almost 50 years, former students and staff, the people in the community and the children and grandchildren of W. F. Branch High praise your name everywhere. And this is why my journey continues…
To read more about education in my family click HERE.