No Vacancy


             Norfolk Academy, as the saying goes, lies at the heart of Tidewater.  Due to quirks of history as early as the creation of the Board of Trade by the British Parliament in 1607 and as late as America’s entry into World War I in 1917, our school has always been central to the life and the development of our community.  You might argue that some independent schools have as much national prestige as the Academy, but no educational institution in the nation has played a bigger role in the history of the area it serves.

             That is particularly true when it comes to sticks and bricks.  That is, the structures used to house our school have, on no less than four occasions, been put to use in service of the community.  Since the Revolutionary War, Norfolk Academy has indeed closed four times, but it has never been vacant. The reasons for the closings range from incredibly sad to proudly patriotic.  To understand the first episode, let us take our minds back to June 7, 1855.

             Arborvirus flavividirae. That is the scientific name for the microbe that manifests itself in humans as Yellow Fever.  Certain classes of simians simply tolerate the disease. But when mosquitoes bite an infected monkey, those mosquitoes and their offspring become carriers.  Worse than that, any human they subsequently bite and infect becomes a carrier as well, so once unleashed the disease spreads exponentially.  Given the state of medical science in 1855, the disease killed approximately two thirds of those it infected, and no one at the time had any idea how it was transferred, much less how to treat it. So when on June 7, the steamer Ben Franklin, carrying a cargo of tropical fruit (and deadly insects) from Charlotte Amalie to New York, started taking on water off the Carolina coast and put into the Gosport Navy yard in Norfolk, it unleashed a flying brigade of tiny and medically invisible angels of death on a defenseless community.  Like any exponential sequence, it grew slowly at first, but by the end of August the plague was literally everywhere.

             Reverend George Armstrong, a Presbyterian minister in Norfolk, wrote a series of essays describing in excruciating and depressing detail “The Summer of Pestilence.”  The numbers are almost impossible to believe.  The local newspaper said that by August 11, half the city’s residents had either died or fled.  Armstrong’s congregation sank from over 200 to 27. By September almost every remaining human was either recovering, sick, or dead.  There was no time, and more important, not enough lumber to stage individual burials, so a large pit was dug at what is now the corner of Hampton Boulevard and Princess Anne Road for use as a mass grave.  Scores of bodies were lowered into it every day.  It is heartbreaking to read Armstrong’s description of the futility of public officials’ attempts to check the spread of the disease, for they were completely ignorant as to its source.

             The disease spared no class, race, or age group, although those that had access to better hygiene seemed to have a better chance of survival. With that much death and desertion, there was certainly no need for a school.  And Norfolk Military Academy, holding forth from its grand Greek temple on Bank Street, had become a great and regionally renowned school since its move to the site in 1840.  In a fine building designed by Thomas Ustick Walter (whose next project would be the dome of the U. S. Capitol), and under the leadership of a young and talented headmaster, Colonel John Bowie Strange (VMI’s “first cadet”), the school had become a recognized feeder to colleges and military academies up and down the east coast. But with almost no living students in town, there was no reason to open for classes in the fall of 1855.  For a while, young boys used the school grounds as places for play, but by the first of October, there weren’t enough to get up a decent game.


             With death rates at their highest down by the Elizabeth River, City Fathers wanted to move their offices, particularly the post office, farther north.  The suddenly vacant Greek temple was ideal, and school trustees did not hesitate to allow the City to use the facility.  If we cannot serve the community by educating its young, they thought, at least we can provide a place to receive words of comfort from the outside world.  But Dr. Armstrong could not help but bemoan what had happened to the Academy site.  Near the end of September he described a place where just weeks before:
Norfolk Academy photo of the 1804 Greek Temple building in downtown Norfolk.

… a crowd would collect on the ample porch and on the steps of the building, while in the yard . . . there were always boys playing marbles or engaged in some other sport, and this with all the characteristic hilarity and thoughtlessness of youth . . .Thus, even after a general gloom had spread over every corner of the city, here was a spot which yet wore a rosy, cheerful aspect.

All is changed now. Today I saw no boys playing around, no crowd collected in the porch; one by one, men with sad countenance came, and receiving their letters, turned and went away again, one having hardly the heart to speak to another.

            The Academy’s most recent Headmasters have each observed that in times of tragedy, schools are good places to be. Even on September 11, 2001, Dennis Manning said publicly what reassurance he drew from buildings full of energetic children.  It seems, however, that even the ferocious optimism of youth was no match for Yellow Fever.

             Mercifully, a premature October freeze destroyed the mosquito population and staunched the spread of the disease.  Norfolk Academy would reopen in 1856, but it would be a full decade before times would permanently turn for the better.  A Civil War would have to spend itself out across the land, and Norfolk would have to suffer occupation by what most citizens deemed a foreign power, the Union army.  Even at that nadir, our school was put to public use.  In a week or two I’ll tell you all about it.

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