Community & News

Community & News

Open Air Schools: The Fight Against Tuberculosis


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Tuberculosis is an ancient disease that has killed over one billion people in the last two centuries. In the early 20th century the disease spread rapidly, primarily in cities and among the poor who lived, worked and went to school  in close quarters.  It was known, through evidence gained over a number of years, that a clean environment, fresh air and good nutrition could help to prevent the spread of the disease.  Based on these ideas, an educational trend of “open air” schools began to emerge.  In Europe the schools were often purpose-built, residential and year-round.  The United States followed a different approach and created separated spaces such as the “roof school,” the “room school,” and the “building in the yard school”  within existing structures.  These areas offered at-risk children extra nutrition and education in fresh air.  An article entitled “Richmond’s Open Air Schools” appeared in the magazine “The Modern City” (May 1917); in it, the author, John H. Ferguson, describes three Richmond schools (among 16 in the city) that fit the three categories – Madison School in Monroe Ward, which had a “roof school,” Springfield School in Church Hill, which featured the “room” variety, and Navy Hill School which featured a separate building in the rear of the school grounds.  Although the article was not illustrated, the Cook Photograph Collection contains some striking images which closely match the content of the article.

“Open-air” classroom at Moore Street School, 1916
1113 W. Moore Street, Carver
“Each school has a capacity of 20 children; and each one is always crowded, with a long waiting list.  The children are selected from the entire public school system of the city by the school physician…Few of these children have tuberculosis even in its non-communicative forms, but they are all below par, physically, just in the right receptive condition to be fertile soil for the development of the disease.”


Cook (No Number)
“Open-air” classroom at Springfield School, ca. 1914
N. 26th and E. Leigh Streets, Church Hill
“In addition to teaching her children, the fresh air teacher must cook for them.  When they first arrive they have a glass of milk; at noon they have a simple luncheon; before they go they have another glass of milk.  For food is a vital part of the open-air school…”


“Roof-top” “open-air” classroom at Springfield School, 1914
N. 26th and E. Leigh Streets, Church Hill
“…twenty small…children, rolled in twenty sleeping bags, are stretched out comfortably on as many little cots…”


“Roof-top” “open-air” classroom at Springfield School, 1914
N. 26th and E. Leigh Streets, Church Hill
“…an open-air school of the most modern type.  The Springfield School building is in the heart of the poor quarter…”


“Open-air” classroom at Baker School, 1915
100 W. Baker Street, Jackson Ward
“The day is windy and the room is bitterly cold…Each child has on a red knitted cap, each one is wrapped snugly in a blanket, with mittened hands and text books propped before them.  They all look bright eyed and wriggling…”


“Open-air” classroom at Baker School, 1915
100 W. Baker Street, Jackson Ward
“It is just the average classroom, with one single difference.  On two sides it is enclosed with great glass windows, open from the top.  Again there is to be seen a teacher in cap and coat…”

Laura Carr
Museum Technician
The Valentine