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A photo shows the seated Class of 1937 at George P. Phenix Training School in Hampton, Virginia. The girls are all wearing white, and the boys are wearing black pants and jackets.
A Wells Fargo bank branch mural in Hampton, Virginia, honors the George P. Phenix Training School Class of 1937.

School rediscovers its civil rights legacy in a bank

A mural in a Wells Fargo bank branch in Hampton, Virginia, celebrates the alumni of a formerly all-black high school who left their mark on their community and their country.

February 20, 2019

The image is seared in Janice Booker’s memory — the sight of her father moving the chairs out of the dining room and into the living room of their home in Hampton, Virginia; arranging them neatly in rows; and then delivering his lecture to the empty seats.

Over and over, until it was perfect.

Elbert R. Booker shakes hands with Army Col. Reed Booth. Both men have their hands on a certificate.
Army Col. Reed Booth, right, awards Elbert R. Booker Sr. his 20-year service certificate at Fort Eustis. Photo courtesy of Janice Booker/Elbert Booker Sr. archive

As records manager at Fort Eustis, an Army base near Hampton, he wanted to make sure the white soldiers and other civil service staff he would teach the next day wouldn’t get the inferior delivery he feared they expected because of his race. Thirty-seven years later, Elbert R. Booker Sr. retired from civilian service at Fort Eustis, with a folder full of commendations and awards.

“My dad taught my brother and me that, ‘Whatever job you did, you did your best,’” Janice Booker recalled about her father, who died in 2006. “All the commendations came because he prepared, prepared, and prepared. He was aware of the racial distinctions people were making.

“At his funeral in 2006, there was an older white man there who apparently was the person who first hired him at Fort Eustis. He said as soon as he met my father, he told his superiors, ‘This is a resource we have got to open a door for,’ and then told us, ‘I was never let down from that decision.’”

Bank becomes a museum

Today a mural in Wells Fargo’s Power Plant bank branch in Hampton is introducing people to the legacy of Booker Sr. and his fellow 1937 graduates of the George P. Phenix Training School — also known as Phenix High School — an all-black school in Hampton during segregation.

Black and white photo of Mary Winston Jackson in front of computers.
1937 Phenix valedictorian Mary Winston Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958. Photo credit: NASA

Among the 49 members of Phenix’s Class of 1937 pictured on the mural are Booker Sr. (the class president) and Mary Winston Jackson (valedictorian) — the first black engineer at NASA, and one of the mathematicians and human computers featured in the movie “Hidden Figures.”

“I am so humbled by this whole experience,” Jackson’s daughter Carolyn Lewis said of the mural and the newfound interest in the community about the legacy of Phenix and its graduates and faculty. “My mother was a beautiful, strong woman, and she would have been amazed to see all of this.”

Also pictured in the class photo is Thelma Louise Gary Boone, the longest-living member of the Class of 1937. She died Nov. 15, 2017, after a career as one of Virginia’s educational pioneers in the teaching of the blind.

“These graduates were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves and children of the Depression,” Booker, a 1965 Phenix graduate, said. “To know many were inducted into the National Honor Society and went on to other great achievements is a testament to the survival of their families and their commitment to education and encouraging children to do their best. That is something Hampton can be proud of, and people beyond Hampton can be proud of.”

Honoring civil rights and black history

Beth Currie, head of the Community Mural Program for Wells Fargo, said Phenix’s rich legacy is why designer Anne Marie Lapitan made the class photo part of the bank branch’s mural.

Installed in 2011, the mural in Hampton is one of 105 community murals in Virginia and more than 2,400 that Wells Fargo has installed nationwide.

“Over and over, people tell us they see themselves and their communities in these art pieces, and appreciate that these legacies are being honored,” Currie said.

The Hampton mural is one of nearly a dozen in the Community Mural program honoring the struggle for civil rights and influential figures in black history, along with murals in St. Augustine, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Milwaukee; and other locations.

Currie said the murals have become so popular that Wells Fargo has begun creating replica murals for officials and family members of those featured.

 The mural, which has a white and red house with a white lighthouse; a sign reading Hampton, Virginia; an old class photo; a body of water with a boat, and historic Wells Fargo documents.

‘Do you know your dad is on a picture in a bank?’

Seletia Hamiel, who manages the Power Plant bank branch, said the mural and its photos have proven popular.

“We continue to have a lot of customers stopping and looking at the mural and reading the mural legend to learn more about each photograph,” she said. “I think the mural is a wonderful feature of our branch, and it’s an excellent way to honor people and institutions in our community that are right here in our backyard and are part of our goal of putting customers first and operating as a community bank.”

1965 Phenix High School graduate Janice Booker visits the mural honoring her father and his Class of 1937 classmates.
1965 Phenix High School graduate Janice Booker stands next to the Phenix Class of 1937 photo featured in Wells Fargo’s Power Plant branch mural in Hampton, Virginia.

Booker just learned about the mural last fall when a neighbor asked, “Do you know your dad is on a picture in a bank?” She visited the bank to see for herself, and after seeing the mural, she sent an email thanking Currie and Wells Fargo.

Since then, more than 100 other Phenix alumni and their families and friends have visited the mural.

“As a person of color who attended all-black schools segregated by laws and regulations, to now live in a world where those laws no longer exist,” said Booker, “I think it is vitally important that Wells Fargo and others not only educate the public about the horrors of segregation, but also focus on the excellence that was one of the foundational cornerstones of our black community.

“If my dad or Mrs. Jackson or any of the other members of the Class of 1937 were talking to me and you today, they would say this: ‘We gave you our best, and we expect you to do the same wherever you go.’”

50th anniversary photo of the Phenix High School Class of 1937
Booker, third from left on back row, Jackson, front left, and other Phenix alums returned to Hampton in 1987 for their 50th class reunion. Photo courtesy of Janice Booker/Elbert Booker Sr. archive
Contributors: Ryan Levy
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