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First black man elected in Prince William County to be honored with elementary school

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Harper and Covington [Photo: Prince William County Public Schools]

Editors note: This is the second in a series of two stories about Betty Covington and John Harper, for which Covington-Harper Elementary School is named.

John Harper didn’t plan to retire in Prince William County.

While living in Dale City in 1979, the 23-year Army veteran was given a choice of transfer to Pennsylvania to help train the National Guard, or retire. After serving 18 years as an artillery man and the last five years of his career as a logistician, Harper chose the latter.

On August 24, the county school division will dedicate a new elementary school partially in his honor. The new school, Covington-Harper Elementary School at Potomac Shores, is named after Betty Covington and Harper, two retirees who both served on the first elected school board in Prince William County in 1995.

Both honorees served Prince William County on the school board, in its public schools, and Harper in the county government. He was the first black man to be elected to county office, and he was the first black man to head a department in the county government.

Harper’s story, like Covington’s, begins in rural North Carolina. His family lived as sharecroppers in a farm in Goldsboro where they grew everything from tobacco, corn, to cotton.

Harper, 81, was the oldest of four children. He did his homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. He walked about two miles — sometimes with cardboard in his soles — to a one-room segregated school house with a stove.

“The teacher would bring an apple and put it on top of the stove, so it gave off an aroma in the room,” he said.

Through the years, Harper was regularly top in his class. By the time he made it to high school, he was the valedictorian of his 120-member graduating class.

After high school, Harper went to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University to become a pre-med student. His parents paid the way — at first.

“My parents’ money ran out the second year,” he said.

Harper enlisted in the Army, stayed in school, and took a job as a waiter working for tips at a restaurant in Downtown Washington, and later Alexandria. He also worked nights sorting mail at a U.S. Post office on North Capitol Street at Union Station in Washington.

After college, he married his wife of 58 years Beulah “BJ” Harper. The two met while Harper was in high school in Goldsboro five years earlier.

They married on June 6, 1959, the anniversary of D-Day. “I thought it was an important date,” he said.

Marriage, children, and his commitment to the Army changed his plans of becoming a doctor. He attended officer’s basic course shortly in May 1960 in Texas and would become a captain.

He drove from Washington to school in Texas by himself and was not allowed to sleep in segregated motels, so most nights he slept in his car. On one trip from Texas back to D.C, a white man hitched a ride with Harper, and the two stopped in a cafeteria in Indianapolis.

“He went through the line and filled his tray up with the food he wanted, so I did too,” explained Harper. “When we got to the register, the man said that I wasn’t allowed to eat there, so the guy I was with said ‘if he doesn’t eat here, I don’t eat,’ and we both left.”

After he retired from the Army, Harper got his Realtor license and sold houses. The local politics bug also bit him, and he supported local Board of Supervisors candidates G. Richard Pfitzner, for whom the Potomac Nationals Baseball Stadium is named, and current Neabsco District Supervisor John Jenkins.

Harper was hired as the head of the county’s sanitary department in 1987, where he worked as the county’s first black department head for 10 years before taking a medical retirement.

After making an unsuccessful bid for Prince William County Clerk of the Court in 1991, Harper ran for a seat on the county’s first elected school board and won. In 1995, he became the first elected African-American to serve in Prince William County.

While on the school board, Harper was instrumental in changing the funding formula for the county school division. Before Harper, the county government funded the schools based on need.

Harper pushed for a revenue-sharing agreement that automatically gave 51% of the county’s budget to the school division. The agreement remains in place today, and automatic funding to the schools has increased to nearly 58% of the county’s budget.

Harper also pushed for school uniforms. Some schools adopted them, while others did not.

“Some parents would call me and tell me that a uniform takes away their child’s identity. I wore a uniform for 23 years and I never lost my identity,” said Harper.

Harper served on the school board for four years. He also made an unsuccessful bid for state delegate in 1998.

Today, he said he misses public life and having the ability to help teachers and principals.

“I had a little bit of influence,” he said. “Nothing compares to helping somebody because they appreciate it.”

Today, Prince William County’s public schools are “not where we want them to be” but they are improving, he said. The county’s classrooms are some of the most crowded in the Washington region, and Harper called the gender bathroom debate a “distraction” from education.

When the doors to the elementary school open this fall, Harper says he plans to read to students the same way he used to read to students at Minnieville Elementary School. He always pushed the students to work harder.

“I’ve always worked under the idea of good, better, best. You never let it rest until your good is better, and your better is best,” he said.

Having a school named after him is an honor, he added.

“If I had my way, it would be Harper Elementary. But if I have to share it with anyone I’m glad it’s Betty because she’s a fine person,” said Harper.

Harper is looking forward to his wife, three children, seven grandchildren, and members of his Alpa Phi Alpha fraternity joining him on Thurday, August 24 for a dedication of the new school.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication will take place at the school located at 2500 River Heritage Boulevard near Dumfries at 6 p.m. The building is the newest elementary school in Prince William County will house 500 students when it opens.

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