After Virginia created its first statewide system of free public schools in 1870, many of the state's Indigenous peoples were left out. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi, who resided on ancient tribal reservations in King William County, had been exempt from taxation since the seventeenth century and did not initially gain access to the local public schools. By the beginning of the twentieth century several Virginia tribes had small, one-room frame schools, which for decades the state partially supported. This school on the Pamunkey reservation offered elementary education to a small number of children until it closed in the 1950s, but many Indigenous Virginians who desired to attend high school were denied admittance to the racially segregated public schools in Virginia and either had to leave home to attend a government Indigenous peoples school in another state or quit school before completing their education. The "Pamunkey Indian school" is now part of the tribal museum on the Pamunkey Reservation.
Indigenous peoples were not American citizens even after ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and they were often discriminated against and denied the equal protection of the laws. After the Civil War, white government officials in Virginia began to enforce racial distinctions that before the war had not always affected Indigenous descendants. After the creation of the public school system, Indigenous children were not allowed to attend white schools. Legalized segregation forced Indigenous communities to search for differences between themselves and Black Americans. For Indigenous peoples tribes, reasserting Indigenous identity meant rejecting the biracial, historical categories of “white” and “colored.”
Schools became a key site to assert Indigenous autonomy. Between 1880 and 1920, many Indigenous communities established their own schools rather than attend Black schools. In this way, Indigenous peoples resisted the color line by insisting on the creation of “Indian” as a third category. In Virginia, the Pamunkey tribe went so far as to carry membership cards with them so they could not be forced onto the “colored” railway coach. The Pamunkey Tribe established its own school, which consisted of a single-story frame building.
Citation: Pamunkey Schoolhouse Photograph, May 31, 1937; Pamunkey Indian School, Pamunkey Indian Reservation, King William County, School Buildings Service Photograph Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia
Analyze: Why do you think Indigenous peoples were not considered American citizens? Why do you think they were treated this way?
Current Connections: How are Indigenous peoples and tribes recognized and treated today?
Analyze: What do you think happened to Indigenous peoples in Virginia after Brown v. Board of Education? Do you think this ruling affected them?
Artistic Exploration: Look carefully at the Pamunkey School House photograph. From the picture, what can you assume about the size of the school, its heating and cooling, its utility as a structure? There are also four children in the photograph: what observations can you make about them?