A New Wave at R-MA

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Cooper Bourdon '11

The ability to deal with change is something on which Randolph-Macon Academy prides itself. In 1917 it changed from simply a college preparatory school to a college preparatory school with a military program (National Defense Cadet Corps) during World War I. In 1927 it witnessed a catastrophic change in the very building it called home as it burned to the ground on a frigid January evening. In 1929 it faced the Great Depression and a depleted economy. In 1933 it dealt with the closing of R-MA at Bedford and welcomed those students to its campus. In 1953 it made a significant change and became its own entity as it separated from Randolph-Macon College.

As shown, change is something R-MA is familiar with, but in the late-60’s to mid-70’s it dealt with not just a personal change, but a social change that was sweeping the nation. It was time to break past conventions and embrace a new world of education. 

The desegregation of public schools was becoming more prevalent each year since Brown vs. Board of Education. In 1966 a statement signed by Robert P. Parker, President of R-MA and J. Douglas Potter, Lt. Col. Adjutant General AGC, read, “The President of Randolph-Macon Academy in consideration of the maintenance of a unit of the National Defense Cadet Corps program at the above school HEREBY AGREES that the school and the Cadet program will be operated without discrimination on the grounds of race, color or national origin…” Despite the school’s new policy, the first black-American student would not attend R-MA until the fall of 1971.

This brings us to an important year of change in R-MA’s history. 1974 marks two different “firsts” in R-MA history. It was the first year a black-American student graduated from R-MA, and it was the first year females were allowed to attend R-MA for the regular academic school year.

The first black student to join the alumni of R-MA was a young man named Kervin L. Williams from Winchester, Virginia. He had the forethought and maturity to realize that public school was not facilitating his needs as a student in his formative years. Rather than sit idly by he was proactive and developed a solution to obtain a higher level of education. Williams worked hard, served tables, and saved his money in order to attend R-MA as a senior in the fall of 1973.

Williams considered his admission to R-MA as a blessing. He always had a hard time in math class, but received a great deal of support from his teachers and classmates. He believes the help he received enabled him to graduate in the spring of 1974. “I received so much support from that place. There is no reason to fail there,” said Williams.  

Several months after Kervin Williams graduated from R-MA the Academy would welcome its first ever female students. Girls were able to attend the R-MA summer school program since 1966, but the 1974-75 school year was the first for female cadets.

The admission of females to R-MA seemed like a win-win situation. It provided these girls with an opportunity at a higher level of education and it could potentially increase enrollment in the post-Vietnam era. “The faculty seemed to favor having females in the school,” said Ron McManus, Assistant to the President in the mid-70’s. “Not only to help enrollment, but also perhaps to elevate the academic program—to bring civility back.”

The first female to graduate from R-MA was Mary Brooke Massie ’76. Massie graduated with honors from the University of Virginia (UVA) in 1980 and graduated from UVA’s School of Law in 1983. This type of academic success is typical among female students at R-MA and has certainly helped in the continuation of their attendance at the Academy. However, it played an important part in not only admitting more female students, but also providing accommodations for future female students. 

McManus commented that the school did not make immediate accommodations, such as their own locker rooms and showers for the girls when they first arrived. This was a small matter compared to what the girls really wanted, a dormitory of their own. The construction of a girls’ dormitory was important to students such as Joyce Vithespongse ’87 because it would breed a close-knit community among the female population at R-MA. 

Before the construction of Turner Hall in 1990, the girls lived in separate housing behind Boggs Chapel. They were geographically removed from the main part of campus and were not under the same roof as their peers. Vithespongse was able to find the silver lining anyway. “For girls it took extra effort to insinuate ourselves into the school and be an integral part of things. But that in itself was a good experience. In the real world, the workplace, or any hierarchical organization it’s something women encounter and learn to overcome.” 

The plans for Turner Hall were unveiled in 1985 and construction was set for 1990 thanks to the efforts of Joe Silek Sr. and Bernard B. Lane ’46. Furthermore, the Coed Task Group of the Long Range Planning Committee of 1986 established the necessity of the continued female presence at R-MA through their study. 

“As ever increasing numbers of women assume positions of responsibility in business, politics, the professions and the military services, the importance of a quality education for females—secondary as well as collegiate—is not only abundantly clear, but is fast becoming a fabric of our society… Preparatory schools restricted to single gender are severely handicapped in preparing the whole person to function effectively in a dual gender collegiate environment and a dual gender competitive society… If R-MA is to remain competitive in the private secondary school market and to maximize its capability of expanding enrollment to a level required to yield sound financial support, it must be positioned to offer a quality education in a healthy environment to young people of both sexes…”

This conclusion established the crucial foothold for females at R-MA and they have been a part of the school for 43 of its 125 years. 

Change can present a great challenge, but also a great reward. It is an enemy of complacency and a friend of improvement. It helps us move forward in a constructive way. Change, though difficult, has served R-MA since 1892. It has given us the structure of the military, a beautiful Jeffersonian building, and a diverse student body comprised of students of many different races, sexes, and cultures.