May 17 marked the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which called for the end of segregated public schools. The court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal; segregation in public education is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.” This decision overturned the 1896 Supreme Court’s ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which created the “separate but equal” doctrine that legalized racial segregation in public schools as long as facilities were equal.

However, separate was never equal. Local Southern school boards allocated the bulk of their budgets to educating white students, who were provided with school houses, transportation, new textbooks and supplies and extracurricular activities. A small fraction of school budgets was spent on the education of Black students.

While touring Black schools in the early 1900s, American educator Booker T. Washington once said, “Many of the places in the South where the schools are taught are as bad as stables.” Washington would eventually influence Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears and Roebuck, to donate $25,000 to found a historically Black college called Tuskegee Institute, where the Tuskegee Airmen, the first World War II Black pilots, were trained.

Moreover, Washington convinced Rosenwald to invest more than $4 million to help rural Southern Black communities build approximately 5,000 state-of-the-art public schools to educate their children. The schools became known as Rosenwald Schools, and were built between 1912 and 1937. By the 1950s, studies showed that Rosenwald schools helped to close the education gap by 40%. Famous graduates of Rosenwald schools included renowned poet Maya Angelou, Georgia Congressman John Lewis and civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

There were more than 300 Rosenwald schools built in Virginia communities, including in Suffolk, Gloucester and Cape Charles. Many of the school buildings were abandoned or repurposed following the 1954 Brown v. Board decision.

Today only 10% of Rosenwald schools still stand — remnants of a moment in history when people put aside racial differences to help educate one of society’s most vulnerable groups of people, Black children.

Washington and Rosenwald provided a blueprint for transcending race to work for the good of marginalized people in the community. It begins with building bigger tables. It involves offering people who don’t look like you a seat at the table, and calls for taking opportunities to reeducate yourself about America’s complex racial history. It ends with making tangible commitments to heal ourselves and our community by identifying historical harm and implementing reparative remedies.

Helping people to lay aside racial differences and “come to the table” to build relationships and community is the mission of the Virginia Racial Healing Institute. We create safe spaces where a diverse group of people can respectfully listen to one another’s truths, build trust and relationships and participate in community initiatives aimed at repairing the harm caused by centuries of systemic racism.

On June 22, we are partnering with the Let Freedom Ring Foundation and Williamsburg Christian Church for our third annual Journey to Racial Healing ceremony. This free community event brings together people with family ties to slavery to discuss their journey to racial healing. Our guests are the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV and Tonia Merideth, who are descendants of the family of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Mark your calendar and make plans to join us. There’s a seat at our “table” for you. When we come together to build a more inclusive and just community, we all win!

Laura D. Hill is the executive director of the Virginia Racial Healing Institute, which manages Coming to the Table-Historic Triangle. Learn more about her work at