By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
From September 29 to October 1 of this year thousands of graduates of the historic I.C. Norcom High School will be participating in events observing the school’s anniversary.
But instead of celebrating a 110-year-old legacy of the school which served Portsmouth’s Black community during Jim Crow segregation, it will be the 145th.
Many pieces of the historic puzzle have been pieced together to get a clear picture of the school’s history.
Sleuthing for historic connections by members of the Norcom Alumni Association in collaboration with the Portsmouth African-American Historical Association, and the Virginia Public Schools & The Library of Virginia, reveals that I.C. Norcom is much older than has been thought and perhaps is the second oldest in the United States behind Dunbar High in Washington, D.C.
On February 23, with members of the Norcom Alumni Association on hand, the Portsmouth School Board put it in writing.
It approved and issued a proclamation acknowledging the beginning of the institution known as Israel Charles Norcom High School, as being established in 1878 from its origins: the Chestnut Street Colored School.
I.C. Norcom High School has long been considered a major pipeline to the Portsmouth community through a rich legacy of leaders and educators. After extensive research of proven historical facts and data going back to 1878 with the Virginia Public Schools & The Library of Virginia, it has been confirmed that the genesis of I.C. Norcom High is the 1878 Chestnut Street School that started as the “Chestnut Street School for the Colored” which educated elementary students and this same school graduated students from high school.
The proclamation reads:
“This time of Black History Month is a time like no other, to recognize and acknowledge the full legacy of this Historically Black High School. The I.C. Norcom Alumni Association is proud to join the Portsmouth City School Board, and the city, to celebrate 145 years of our historic, I.C. Norcom High School as we also celebrate our 8th Grand Reunion.”
The resetting of this historical fact confirms that I. C. Norcom is one of the oldest Historically Black High Schools (HBHS) in the nation, second only to Dunbar High School in Washington, D..C, which was established in 1870.
The I.C. Norcom High School Alumni Association, Inc. is a non-profit organization established to promote and assist in activities that best support the interest of I.C. Norcom High School.
Roderick Hawthorne II is a 2008 graduate of Norcom and is currently the Director of Public Relations for the Alumni Association.
He is among the leaders of the group’s planning team organizing the 8th grand reunion in late September of this year.
Hawthorne, while planning for the event, said he was searching through various documents related to the famous Black educator I.C. Norcom, city schools records, yearbooks, memories of alumni, and cross-checking with historic data.
According to Hawthorne and Leah Stith, the new President of the Alumni Association, Chestnut was the only school in 1878 and years afterward. It provided not only elementary but high school training for Blacks.
The two cite a narrative of a former female slave, Mary Jane Wilson, recorded in April 1937. According to the narrative document, she was living out the remainder of her years in the Old Folks Home for Colored Teachers at the time.
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