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Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 110 / Number 3
What Did You Flunk? Summer Schools and the Race for Promotions in Richmond, Virginia, 1911–31
- By Kenneth M. Gold, pp. 339–76
The public schools of Richmond, Virginia, launched its vacation school program in 1911. At first, the summer session was
open to white children, who came primarily to gain promotion by repeating academic coursework they had failed during the
regular year. In 1918, the city opened vacation classes for African Americans, who had actively lobbied for them. Black
students attended in large numbers but for a very different purpose than their white peers—to accelerate their passage
through the graded school system. This article examines the meaning of the starkly different way whites and blacks used
vacation schools, and it explores why vacation schools came to be viewed as academically weak. It analyzes how vacation
schools began in Richmond, how local residents viewed them, and how they functioned in terms of student admission,
promotion policies, personnel selection, administrative relationships with regular schools, and organizational structure.
Evidence presented suggests that though vacation schools were not statistically subpar, they did not become equal
partners in the school system. White administrators distrusted and discouraged the African American use of vacation
schools to skip a class, term, or grade and struggled to fit regular-school curriculum into the shorter summer term.
Nevertheless, they attempted to raise standards, negotiate racial differences, resolve internal bureaucratic tensions,
and maintain funding levels. By 1930, vacation schools in Richmond had become embedded as a part of the system
of distributing academic credentials, and yet they existed as a clearly subordinate component of a school district that
was savaged by budget cuts during the Great Depression.