Armstrong High School has a very rich heritage. Founded in 1865 by the Freedman’s Bureau, the school was dedicated to the intellectual, academic, moral, and social enhance-ment of students. At first four churches and Dill’s Bakery at the corner of St. James and Clay Streets were used to house the students. Mr. Rabza Morse Manley was made superintendent.
As many of the children had already been taught to read and write, Mr. Manley of Vermont, who had served as chaplain in the Army, conceived the idea of establishing a Normal School to train the children of that generation to teach those of the next. He set about raising funds for this purpose. His efforts were fruitful, and in recognition of his success, he was made principal of the first building erected at the corners of Sixth and Duval Streets.
The cost of the building was $6,500.00, exclusive of the labor, a large part of which was donated by Negro mechanics and laborers. The new building was dedicated in September 1867 with elaborate ceremonies. Chief Justice Case was the principal speaker for the occasion. This building remained standing and in use for other purposes until 1957 when it was torn down to make way for the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike.
So eager were the people to learn, that the first erected building soon became overcrowded and Mr. Manley and others solicited funds for a larger building. This money was used to erect a building at a site at 12th and Clay Streets. (Our school yearbook is called the Rabza in recognition of Rabza Morse Manley’s philanthropic efforts - his desire to help humanity.)
This school became known as the Colored High and Normal School. At the commencement in 1876, the announcement was made that because the workers had been unable to raise funds for the continuation of the work, the Board of Trustees of the school would deed the building and the site to the City of Richmond to be used at all times as an institution for the education of Negro youth.
From 1873 to 1906, the school underwent a gradual change making it more like a high school than a normal school. The school was organized on a four-year basis for the high school and one-year normal training in addition.
In 1908, the building on 12th Street was condemned and the school was moved to the Baker School building for one year. In 1909, the school was established at First and Leigh Streets, and the name was changed to Armstrong High School in honor of the founder of Hampton Institute, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong.
In 1912, Armstrong became an accredited high school with two additional years of normal training. However, perhaps the most drastic change in the personnel of the school came in September 1915 when the School Board decided to replace the all-white faculty with an all-negro faculty consisting of five men and ten women.
In 1917, the normal and high schools were separated in name as well as in programs. From 1915 to 1920, the school grew so rapidly that it was impossible to house the children who were applying for admittance. A new building was erected by the Richmond School Board at the corner of Prentis and Leigh Streets at a cost of $250,000.00. This is the building, which today houses the Adult Career Development Center (formerly Benjamin Graves Junior High School).
In September 1923, when the school moved to this site, the building consisted of 30 classrooms. The enrollment was approximately 1,100. The school enrollment continued to increase, requiring the construction of an Annex at the rear of the school and use of an Armory across the street on Leigh Street. The library, home economics, and science facilities of the school were constantly expanded. Even after the second Negro high school, Maggie Walker, the facilities of the building were taxed.
In 1952, the building at 1611 North 31st Street was completed at a cost of $2, 500,000.00. Since that time, many changes have taken place and are still in progress. The general office was renovated in 1969 making available space for two assistant principals. At that time air conditioning was installed in the general office, library, guidance suite and auditorium.
In compliance with desegregation laws, Armstrong was integrated in 1971.
In 1974, upon the retirement of Mr. George Peterson, Jr. who had served as principal of Armstrong for 26 years, Mrs. Lucille Murray Brown was appointed the position as the first female principal of a Richmond high school.
In 1979, Armstrong High School and John F. Kennedy High School were combined to form the Armstrong-Kennedy High School complex. The new school colors were blue and gold; the mascot was the Jaguar, and the school newsletter was called the Jaguar Journal.
The high school complexes were eliminated after the 1985-86 school year, and in September 1986, the Armstrong building was once again Armstrong High School. It reverted to its original school colors –burnt orange and royal blue; its mascot, the Wildcat; its yearbook, Rabza; its school newspaper, The Spirit of Armstrong; its magazine, Xanadu; and its beloved Alma Mater.
Due to decreased enrollment at both Armstrong and Kennedy High Schools and the escalating cost in operating both buildings, in 2004 Armstrong High School and John F. Kennedy High Schools merged. The merged school, now located at 2300 Cool Lane retained the name Armstrong along with all of its traditions, history, and heritage.
Armstrong’s heritage is rich because of the many dedicated people who have guided the development of the thousands of students who have walked the hallowed halls of Armstrong High School. To list the laudable accomplishments and numerous contributions of Armstrong High School students is an impossible task.