Where is Memorial Hall? This was the question that I first asked when I was told to go there as a young freshman to get information about the College of Education. After teaching high school in the Shenandoah Valley I was fortunate enough to transition back into the College of Education now as an assistant professor. While only being here for two years, I am still hearing the same question that I asked many years ago now by many of the students I have encountered while being back on campus. As James Madison University was founded as a women’s teachers college, in many ways it is hard to believe this history considering that the once Harrisonburg High School is now the current building that houses the College of Education and the Department of Military Science.
I currently teach a section of Foundations of American Education (EDUC 200). This course is designed to understand the fundamentals of education, history, social issues within the profession and, most importantly, the development of our students’ desire and motivation to teach. This course consists of mostly freshmen and sophomore students who have declared or are thinking about declaring education as their major but also juniors and seniors who are nearing the end of their time in the program. I asked these current students in my EDUC 200 course if they were ever taken to Memorial Hall at the start of their freshman year by their tour groups or even FROGs [First yeaR Orientation Guides], and all of them said “no” with one student sharing that they were told that “more than likely, they would never have to go there!”
This is the disconnect that often happens between Memorial Hall and the rest of the campus. This is a building with deep history and roots to the community and university that must be told. It was where Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson and four other African American students integrated Harrisonburg City Public Schools years before her very own presence integrated our university during the Jim Crow Era. While we commemorate her legacy and importance to scholarship on the main campus, her story, among others, have yet to be revealed within the very halls in which we work daily in Memorial. As you take a drive down South High Street you will see the replica of artillery pointing outward toward the road, and as you enter the campus you will be greeted by the existence of a veteran memorial dedicated to the men and women of our community who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep our country safe. Unfortunately, the absence of this information draws an important parallel to how we view education in our Commonwealth and the nation and how values tend to wane surrounding the importance of the teaching profession overall.
Memorial is more than just a distant hall away from the buzz of campus. It houses the ETMC [Educational Technology and Media Center], one of four JMU libraries that is fundamental to the preparation of future teachers in our state and beyond. It even houses our Baseball and Softball teams that played an integral part of our school moving toward FBS status. Even the Starship robots fail to cross the railroad tracks of Grace Street to feed our education majors, their faculty, and even our future heroes who prepare to give their lives to protect us both here and abroad as they too share this building with us on a daily basis. My hope with writing this piece is that students in our hall not only take advantage of the current resources in the building, but introduce the rest of the campus to the importance that Memorial serves for JMU.
Encourage orientation and other tour guides to show everything that JMU has to offer and bring students and parents here to our side of campus. I encourage administrators and others in university leadership to highlight the historic importance that this building shares with not only the JMU community, but the Harrisonburg community as well. It is the bridge that truly connects our beautiful city to our beautiful university in such a profound way. Come and learn about the legacy of Lucy Simms and the Celebrating Lucy Simms exhibit that was foundational to the dedication of learning and teaching to Harrisonburg’s African American population during the time of de facto and de jure division experienced in our city. While Grace Street’s railway separates us from our extraordinary bluestone Quad, we are very much a part of the JMU community and the work we do is just as recognizable locally, nationally and internationally as all other colleges on our campus.
I will never forget when I returned to this campus officially for the annual ALANA [African, Latino, Asian and Native American] Network opening event where I was able to meet many other scholars at the Leeolou Alumni Center last year. I had chills coming back to what I consider my second home and was motivated just as much as I am now to be a part of JMU nation once again. As I waited for others to join us to start the meeting, I noticed a beautiful painting of the campus that included the Skyline area and the Quad. However, while this beautiful painting remained hanging during our meeting, I was left asking the same question I asked more than ten years ago…Where is Memorial Hall?