Alexandria’s first high school to educate African American children
On the morning of September 8, 1920, Parker-Gray Elementary School opened its doors. It would later become the first high school in Alexandria to educate African American children and has left an indelible mark on our city. To celebrate this important anniversary, ACPS created a short film to commemorate those who battled for the right to quality public education for those who had been denied.
For years, African American children in the city of Alexandria had been crammed into two unsuitable and poorly-maintained elementary schools; Snowden School for Boys and the Hallowell School for Girls. After an outcry from the community, the city finally agreed to fund a new co-educational public school which was built on the site where the Charles Houston Recreation Center now stands on Wythe Street.
Named in honor of the two principals of Snowden and Hallowell schools, John Parker and Sarah Gray, its doors swung open over one hundred years ago. Parker-Gray Elementary School was woefully under-equipped but parents and community members came together to raise funds for basic materials including school books, chalk and even chairs.
While the segregated school still fell far short of offering an equitable education when compared to schools for white children, with the help of a huge community effort, it did provide schooling through 8th grade.
Yet, if students wanted to continue their education past that point, Alexandria had nothing to offer. Children faced traveling into D.C. to attend a segregated high school which meant a long journey, often by foot throughout the seasons.
In 1932, that changed when, bowing to pressure from the African American community once again, high school grades were added, and it became the Parker-Gray School.
There was no doubt about it, the school’s facilities were lacking in many ways, but despite this, a strong community and a sense of pride grew amongst students, graduates, families and educators.
In September 1950, more changes came as the popularity of the school saw an increase in enrollment which led to a need for a new building.
The old school on Wythe Street became the Charles Houston Elementary School, while the new Parker-Gray High School moved to a building at 1207 Madison Street, now the site of Braddock Place.
Throughout the 1950s, continual improvements and investments were made -- more money meant better, but still unequal, facilities for the students.
As the civil rights movement gained momentum throughout the next decade, the fight for desegregation began in earnest and Alexandria found itself in the spotlight as the nation grappled with right and wrong.
In 1965, the same year T.C. Williams High School opened, Parker-Gray High School closed and began the transition to become a middle school during desegregation. It closed its doors for good in 1979.
The story of Alexandria City Public Schools is long, complex, and messy. It’s a story of a community that faced adversity, racism, bigotry, and neglect. With the odds against them, many went on to become champions for equality and civil rights. They bequeathed us a legacy that we are trying to live up to today.
The 2025 Strategic Plan Equity for All positions our future firmly in our past as we look to continue the work of the trailblazers who came before us in the fight to ensure all children receive an equitable education in the City of Alexandria.