The earliest iteration of education for black students in Gary, WV was the six-room wood-framed Gary Consolidated School that was constructed on Red Cross Street in 1913. It offered elementary and junior high education. In 1922, the school was repurposed as the Gary Negro High School for grades 7 through 12 after a building for elementary students was built nearby.
On May 2, 1923, the United States Coal Commission released a report on Gary, giving the coal camp community an overall rating of 85 out of 100, one of the highest for any company-operated town in the United States. The report noted that there were separate grade and high schools for white and black children. The white grade school was the larger of the two, with eight rooms, water fountains, furnace heat and flush toilets in a wood framed structure. The school for black children was four rooms with water fountains, furnace heat and an outside privy in a wood framed building had four rooms.
In 1925, Gary Negro High School burned, and a new brick structure was constructed in its place. The new two-story building, finished at a cost of $36,000, was far larger and included ten classrooms, library and gymnasium.
Within two years, Gary’s schools for black children were overburdened with an enrollment of 437. A new elementary school was completed as an addition to the high school circa 1927. By September 1938; total enrollment had increased to 650 pupils. In 1954, the Gary Negro Grade School had an enrollment of 208 students while the Gary Negro High School (renamed to Gary District High School) had an enrollment of 508 students.
Integration and Closure
The McDowell County Board of Education allowed for voluntary integration based upon the individual district. By 1957, the number of black students attending integrated schools in the county was four times greater than the entire state of West Virginia in 1959. At the beginning of the fall term in 1958, black students were given the option of remaining at Gary District High School or transfer to the all-white Gary High School. The majority of the students chose to remain at Gary District High School.
In 1961, the West Virginia Human Rights Commission was formed after the West Virginia League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Federal Civil Rights Advisory Committee, and the AFL-CIO lobbied the state legislature successfully. The Commission discovered that in 1963, there were 88 all-black schools still operating in the state. A meeting held in June 1964 by the State Board of Education found that only five counties still maintained all-black schools, including McDowell. McDowell County School Superintendent George Bryson remarked at the meeting that the county was not violating the civil rights of anyone, claiming that the county was “as integrate as any other county in the state.”
Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act proclaimed that any school system found practicing racial discrimination would be prohibited from receiving federal financial funds. The State Board of Education further clarified that the Civil Rights Act called for desegregation, not integration, and districts still employing voluntary integration, such as Gary, would not qualify for any federal dollars.
By early 1965, it had become obvious that McDowell County would need to do more than allow voluntary integration to previously all-white schools. Shortly after a consultant had published a scathing remark against McDowell’s controversial and discriminatory policies against black students, the county adopted a plan to merge its segregated school systems.
In the Plan:
Black students at Gary District High School would attend Gary High School. The building would be repurposed as an integrated elementary school.
The segregated school systems were merged by the spring of 1966. By the fall, all black students in the county attended integrated schools. The repurposed Gary District High School remained open for elementary students until it merged with a school in Welch in 1975.