Cover Story

Keeping Their Heritage Alive

 

Story by Audrey Hingley, Contributing Writer

 

The school as it stands today.

For Virginia’s Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Sharon Indian School stands as a monument to the perseverance of a people.

 

The nondescript brick building with gleaming white windows sits adjacent to Indian View Baptist Church on Route 30, a winding two-lane road filled with pastoral vistas that links nearby Aylett to West Point in King William County east of Richmond. 

A roadside historical marker and a painted sign identify the building as Sharon Indian School, but it’s likely that most who drive this road are unaware of the significance behind the only remaining public Indian school building in Virginia.

That’s because Sharon School, an education center for the Upper Mattaponi Tribe since 1919, is not just a historic site: It’s a physical reminder of a not-too-distant Virginia past where America’s original people endured not only segregation, but a struggle for education and their own identity.

That struggle was magnified by the effects of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, a strict race-classification law defining everyone by only two categories: “white” or “colored.” Dr. Walter Plecker, who was registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912-’46, promoted and embraced the law, which not only prohibited marriage between whites and non-whites, but changed racial labels on vital records. On paper, Virginia Indians were erased from legal existence as generations of ethnic identity were altered on public documents. Some term the law’s legacy “paper genocide” of Virginia Indians. While native people nationwide share unique challenges, the state law remained in effect until a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. 

 “He [Plecker] did force people to document themselves as something other than what they were. It was sanctioned by the state,” explains Ken Adams, 61, chief of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe.

Assistant Chief Frank Adams, 55, explains, “Our parents protected us from knowing the laws on the book. When my mother passed away a few years ago, I became the keeper of her papers and reading some of it brought a tear to my eye. My grandparents had to go around to large white landowners in King William and get them to sign a paper verifying they were Indian. It had to be very humbling.”

In Virginia for Centuries

Ancestors of the Upper Mattaponi have lived near Virginia waterways for centuries. When the British arrived in 1607, native Virginia Indians were prospering under Chief Powhatan, who led more than 30 different tribes. As tribes were displaced, by the 1700s Mattaponi who remained upriver had adopted the surname Adams, possibly due to an area British interpreter named James Adams. Known as the Adamstown Band, the tribe officially changed its name to the Upper Matta­poni Indian Tribe in the early 20th century.

A non-reservation tribe, the Upper Matta­poni own 32 acres of tribal land. The original Sharon School, like many rural schools of its era, was a one-room frame structure with no indoor plumbing, heated by a pot-belly wood stove. It was built in 1919 by members of the Adams­town Band on tribal land. In 1952 the current architect-designed brick school was erected by King Wil­liam County. For several years, the two buildings overlapped in use. The late Helen Hill taught at the school from 1925-1930 and 1946-1964.

“I have fond memories of Mrs. Hill,” says Ken Adams. “She was very stern but I seem to remember her as fair. Lunch was in the old 1919 building and two people prepared our meals.”

“I got married at age 19 and Mrs. Hill came to my wedding ... she made an impression on us,” recalls Connie Lovelace, 52. “I remember each row in the school was a grade, maybe two or three kids in each row.”

When he started at Sharon, Frank Adams was the only first-grade student in his row. “Mrs. Hill moved me to second grade after the first six weeks. I graduated from high school when I was 16 years old,” he explains.

Virginia provided a seventh-grade education until 1952, when they offered Sharon School students an 11th-grade option. To earn a high school diploma, students had to relocate to complete their education, and families had to be separated.

“Beginning in the 1940s, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe tried to obtain methods of getting a high school education for the kids. The pastor of Indian View church had gone to Michigan and found some folks [there] who kids could board with,” Ken Adams explains. “And I remember going to the train station and dropping off my older brother, who had to go to an Indian [boarding] school in Oklahoma [to complete high school].”

He adds that Indian View Baptist Church, built in 1942, is “the glue that held the tribe together,” noting that Virginia Indians in general have a strong Christian faith.

The school as it appeared in 1925.

Adams went to Sharon for 10 years, moving to a sister’s house in Richmond to attend 11th grade at Thomas Jefferson High School.

“It was a big shock,” he says of the transition. “I didn’t know what a homeroom was. I had a [class] schedule and was looking for a room with a 300 number ... I wandered around for awhile because I didn’t realize it was on the third floor.”

With desegregation, Sharon School closed in 1964 and the Upper Mattaponi went to county schools. Ken Adams spent his senior year at King William High School, becoming one of the school’s first two Indian graduates in 1965. The Upper Mattaponi who were the first Indians to attend the formerly all-white school still find it difficult to discuss that time.

 “It was obvious there was some resentment ... it’s hard to explain what that year was like,” Ken Adams says. “There were incidents that occurred that were pretty bad. You can explain discrimination in terms of things like not getting a job, but you can’t explain personal [emotional] aspects of it.”

Connie Lovelace recalls, “The kids asked a lot of questions. They asked if I was a papoose ... I think they saw us as they saw Indians hundreds of years ago. They wanted to touch my hair.”

Frank Adams, educated at Sharon for six years, started grade seven at King William’s campus. “I got an F on my report card, the first one I ever got. I had been a straight-A student. My mom talked to the teacher, and after that I did okay,” he remembers. “I was a good-sized fellow so I didn’t get hassled too much. I played sports, ran track and made several close friends. But kids are mean ... I remember running around the track and hearing them yell, ‘Run, Indian, run.’ I heard the little ‘woo-woo Indian in the house’ [comments].”

Today, the Sharon Indian School building is used by the Upper Mattaponi for tribal meetings. Pictured here are former Sharon School students Carol Howell, Connie Lovelace, Joanie Faulkner, Ben Adams, Frank Adams, Ken Adams, and Roland Adams.

After Sharon School closed in 1965, the county used it for offices. The building was returned to the Upper Mattaponi in 1987 and is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and The National Register of Historic Buildings. Today it functions as a tribal center and is undergoing renovation. The footprint of the 1919 school, which was torn down by the county, is easily located; one archaeologist noted its “archaeological ability to yield information important in history ... it did not experience major disturbance as its successor was located adjacent to, but not directly upon, its remains.”

Ironically, Virginia’s segregation policies helped in one way: According to Chief Adams, Indian schools “were profound in helping us retain our specific identity.”

He adds, “You don’t grow as a person with everything being good in your life ... the difficulty was that in order to get a decent education, family members had to be separated.”

The Commonwealth of Virginia formally recognizes eight tribes, including the Upper Mattaponi, whose ancestors can be traced directly to groups living in Virginia in 1607. Treaties and other legal actions, including the establishment of reservations, pre-date the U.S. Constitution. Virginia has maintained relationships with its tribes for over 400 years, and yet these tribes have never been recognized by the federal government. Over 500 tribes across the U.S. have recognition, but not one is from Virginia. Federal recognition offers acknowledgment as well as eligibility for federal grants and other help in areas like education and health care.

The Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life (VITAL) says tribes have been slighted in the process of federal recognition due in part to Dr. Plecker’s campaign of racial classification. Typically, tribes must apply with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and meet a list of strict standards, including proving continuous existence for at least 100 years. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act resulted in continuity gaps in records, making it nearly impossible for Virginia Indians to prove their existence.

Rep. James Moran (D-8th) first introduced a federal recognition bill for Virginia tribes in 1999. The current bill’s predecessor was passed by the House in 2007, but the Senate later let it die in committee. Virginia chiefs journeyed again to Washington in March 2009 to make their case and Ken Adams is hopeful that federal recognition is on the horizon.

There were about 15,000 Native Americans in the Tidewater area in the early 1600s. Today only about 4,000 Indians remain in Virginia, including 575 Upper Mattaponi. Ken Adams went on to earn a degree from Southern Illinois University, spent 24 years in the U.S. Air Force and worked as an airplane maintenance instructor. Connie Lovelace is a registered nurse and Frank Adams is owner of Glenwood Golf Club, Inc., in Richmond.

 “I’d like people to know the Upper Mattaponi are good, decent people who have become successful in mainstream America, but we’re also trying to keep our heritage alive,” Frank Adams says.

 “My parents never went past the second grade, but we [I and my three siblings] all graduated in the top 10 percent of our class,” Lovelace notes. “We are survivors and we still exist.”

Chief Ken Adams emphasizes, “My observation is that only in the last 20 or 30 years have Indians in general come out of a period that was really heartbreaking. I’d like people to know there’s still a strong, vibrant Indian community in Virginia.

“We haven’t lost our identity as Indian people.”  

 

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