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Christiansburg Institute: Historical Icon for African-Americans - 2002-02-13


After the American Civil War of the 1860s, numerous schools opened across the South to educate freed slaves. We began the story of one such school, Christiansburg Institute, in Christiansburg, Virginia. It taught black students how to read and write as well as practical agricultural and trade skills.

The story of Christiansburg Institute today continues, exploring the African-American school's history up until court-mandated desegregation forced the school to close.

One of most impressive structures ever built on the campus of the Christiansburg Institute (CI) was the multi-purpose Baily-Morris Hall, dedicated in 1912. The hall was designed in the Georgian style, and housed a dining room, a library for 5,000 books and a 300-seat assembly hall. The Friend's Freedmen's Association, an organization developed by the Society of Friends, or Quakers, had paid for Baily-Morris Hall as an investment in the school's future.

At a recent lecture to a national meeting of the Society of Friends, CI historical advisor Anna Fariello reminded the Quakers of the good work their forebears had done in Christiansburg and surrounding Montgomery County, Virginia. "By 1910," she said, "Montgomery County was only one of two counties in Virginia in which the percentage of African Americans enrolled in school was higher than that of whites."

The Institute worked hard to craft a balance between a practical and a classical education, and its success lured students from many places. Ms. Fariello said, "The 1925 catalogue lists almost 100 high school students in attendance. One third from Montgomery and surrounding counties, one third from elsewhere in Virginia, and one third from out of state."

Ms. Fariello says the Great Depression of the 1930s meant the Quakers could no longer raise enough money to support the school. So in 1947, the Society of Friends transferred ownership of the school to the county government, converting the Institute from a private to a public, but still racially segregated, school. "The change from private to public school status affected many aspects of the school," she continued. "The boarding department was closed, the farm, although still part of school property, was phased out as an educational resource."

The school was the only high school in the area that was open to blacks. History professor Peter Wallenstein, at nearby Virginia Tech University, says black students were bussed each day to Christiansburg Institute, sometimes from as far as 100 kilometers away. Professor Wallenstein said, "It must have been an enormous incentive on their part, a motivation to secure the opportunity that was available, and it was very good once they got there."

But the landmark 1954 Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision would change all that. The ruling ordered the South's system of segregated schools desegregated, a decision bitterly opposed by most Southern state governments, which fought to delay desegregation. One school district in Virginia went so far as to close all the county's schools rather than admit blacks to white schools.

Professor Wallenstein says that in Montgomery County, Virginia, the story was not as dramatic, but it was just as heart breaking for students and alumni of the Christiansburg Institute. "What happens when schools are desegregated, and this is largely true across the South, it's not that white students now go to black schools while some black students go to white schools. What happens is that black schools are simply shut down."

And that is what happened to Christiansburg Institute. Beginning in the fall of 1966, when Montgomery County finally accepted desegregation, black students were dispersed among the county's white schools. Most of the school's 14-building campus was sold at auction to the highest bidder.

Professor Wallenstein points to a lack of political power among African Americans as one explanation why CI was closed. "White authorities," he said, "are making decisions as to how, if at all, desegregation would take place. Then they can be responsive to their white constituents and understand that white parents and white children might be reluctant to go to formerly black schools. Had there been a more symmetrical distribution of power, had black and white neighbors worked together in this process, one suspects it might have taken a different shape."

Mr. Wallenstein says the first black students who went to previously all-white schools were pioneers moving into a new environment. But desegregation also meant the end of familiar community touchstones. Professor Wallenstein said, "It wasn't the school that their big brothers and sisters had gone to, it was somebody else's school. And I don't think that there was the same kind of sense of ownership, of empowerment. I think that in a really important psychological and cultural way, there was a displacement."

Erma Jones graduated from CI in 1960, and was in college when the school closed. She said she saw a marked difference in the area when she went home to visit. Ms. Jones said, "The whole being and whole feeling of the community just changed when that school, you know, when it closed its doors."

But the school didn't just close. It was demolished to make way for an industrial park that never completely materialized. In 1980, the grand Baily-Morris Hall fell to the wrecking ball. The gymnasium became a factory, and the shop building was abandoned. Today, only one building is left of the once proud Christiansburg Institute, which for 100 years helped a people find dignity, respect, and community.

Part of VOA's Black History Month series

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