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Historic African American School Depicted In Mural For Newport's 225th Anniversary

courtesy City of Newport

It’s a steamy Saturday morning in July.  Seventy-two-year-old Virinda Garland Doddy and several community members at Newport’s floodwall near the Ohio River, are helping paint a mural depicting students and teachers at what once was the only African American school in Campbell County. As a former student of Southgate Street School, Doddy said at age three she was permitted to go with her two older brothers to the school.  “I was the last class in the first grade at Southgate.”

Classes began at Southgate Street School in 1873. The school operated until the mid-1950’s when it closed its doors after Brown V. Board of Education and segregated schools were ruled unconstitutional. Doddy is one of the people credited with inspiring the design for the mural. She said the foundation received at the all-Black school is the reason she was able to continue her education and go on to help others as a social worker and teacher.

“I remember the love, the care. The teachers instilled in us that we must always try to do our best and to go as far as we could go in education, ” said Doddy. 

Credit Cheri Lawson
Virinda Garland Doddy points to the picture of the mural as volunteers continue to paint. The mural, 'Education Empowers was inspired by Doddy's story.

Doddy graduated from Newport High School. The mother of seven children eventually went on to Northern Kentucky University where she was the first Black graduate in NKU’s Human Services program. 

After Southgate Street School closed, Doddy transferred to an elementary school in Newport which was integrated. She tells how she missed Southgate Street School.  “We were told do your best, follow your dreams, and you will be successful. We did not get that in the other schools. We were often called the ‘N’ word,” reported Doddy.

This mural called ‘Education Empowers’ is the first in a series created to commemorate Newport’s 225th Anniversary. It was designed by NKU graduate Gina Erardi. On this Saturday, Erardi is showing volunteers how to apply paint to the mural.

The 23-year-old says Virinda Doddy and another former student spoke to one of Erardi’s art classes about their experience at Southgate Street School. That inspired the artist to create the design for the mural.

“The topic of segregation was so foreign to me. I can’t imagine a society like that. The fact that they lived through it, I mean they are still alive. They’re living, breathing. They're history," said Erardi.

Credit Cheri Lawson
Volunteers begin painting the mural on a steamy Saturday in July.

Erardi calls the work of art a heavily researched community-based project started a few  years ago. She says looking at the mural, to the left, we see  a teacher assisting a student at a chalkboard. Waves of color go through both the teacher and student and come together at the hand of the student. Out of the student’s hand explodes vibrant colors and waves that sweep across the rest of the portrait.

“And then you have on the right side in those waves, a portrait of  Virinda Garland Doddy, inspired by her, and she is graduating presumably from NKU, because she did. I wanted to depict how the teacher comes together with the student to create this force of nature, this wave that just explodes into possibility,” said Erardi.

Credit Cheri Lawson
Gina Erardi, designer of the mural, stands next to Virinda Garland Doddy and Doddy's daughter Lenora McDay-Tyler. They wave to people passing by in their cars .

The Southgate Street School is still standing and serves now as the Newport History Museum. Scott Clark, executive director, says there’s evidence that the school enriched the lives of the children.

“They were taught that there were no race lines in here, there were no distinctions within these walls. You could be who you want to be. You can achieve, you can go to college. You can make a life for yourself," said Clark.

The art project is a collaboration between Southbank Partners, the Northern Kentucky University Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement, the City of Newport, and the Newport History Museum.

Newport Assistant City Manager, Larisa Sims said the mural is funded by a 13-thousand-dollar grant from the Horizon Fund of Northern Kentucky through its 410 professional group.

“Projects like this are  good opportunities to promote public art and then also to celebrate the deep and rich history of the city of Newport,” said Sims.

"When the mural is complete," Sims said, "there will be a celebration of Newport’s 225th Anniversary."

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