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Christiansburg Institute: Century of Experience in Black Education - 2002-02-13


After the American Civil War of the 1860s, schools opened across the southern states to teach newly freed slaves the skills they needed to adapt to a life of freedom. One such school, the Christiansburg Institute in Christiansburg, Virginia, served as a model for black schools between its opening in 1866 and its closure in 1966.

African Americans first came to the North American mainland as slaves in 1619. It took almost 250 years for slavery to be outlawed in the United States.

But the emancipation of the slaves was only the initial chapter in the African American struggle to become members of a greater society. In the 100 years between the end of the Civil War, in 1865, and the Civil Rights movement, blacks overcame many barriers through perseverance, hard work, and education.

The Christiansburg Institute in western Virginia was a significant force in the effort to break down those barriers. Elaine Carter is executive director of the Christiansburg Institute Incorporated, a non-profit organization hoping to restore what's left of the historic school's campus.

"We have 100 continuous years in the life of one institution," she said. "And that institution is a window into an experience. There were quite a few such academies founded throughout the South. But we have such a wealth of information that we can tell the story and begin to open the door to a century of experience in elementary and secondary education that has not [previously] been opened."

Ms. Carter, who graduated from Christiansburg Institute, or C.I., in 1948 says the story of African American education has a particular resonance within our national narrative.

"The history of how people who had suffered slavery took hold of their lives, and how they forged a way of life that produced a civil rights movement," she said. "There's a lot to be learned there."

At Virginia Tech University in nearby Blacksburg, Virginia, history professor Peter Wallenstein says that in the South, there were few opportunities for formal school for either slaves or freed blacks before the Civil War.

"There were actually laws on the books that banned holding any kind of school or even informally teaching free blacks or slaves to read or write," he said. "There was a strong sense that literacy was a danger to the system [of slavery]."

During the Civil War, as Northern troops advanced through the Southern, or Confederate, states, schools began to open in the areas which fell under Union control.

"By the winter of 1865, shortly before the war ended, the Freedmen's Bureau was established by Congress and one of its functions was to supervise the establishment and the running of the schools [for black students]," Professor Wallenstein said.

The Freedman's Bureau assigned Union Army Officer Charles Stewart Schaefer to open a school in the Christiansburg area. Professor Wallenstein says that, initially, the lessons at the Christiansburg Institute, like those at all the newly opened black schools, were elementary. But the curriculum in many of the schools quickly advanced.

"In the early years, you're simply talking about reading and writing," he said. "Things like high school and college typically came later. As early as the mid- to late 1860's, a number of schools are being established whose primary function is to train black teachers for black schools. So it's in that context between 1865 and 1870, that you get Hampton Institute, Howard University, Atlanta University, Fisk University."

Christiansburg Institute grew rapidly in its first decade. Two years after it opened, 300 students were taking courses there. Its growth attracted the attention of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers.

The Society of Friends had been ardent abolitionists before the Civil War and had created the Friend's Freedman's Association to help support the new black schools that were cropping up across the South after the war. In 1873, the Quakers made their first annual contribution to C.I. Fifteen years later, in 1888, the federal government closed down its Freedman's Bureau and the Friends turned for support to Booker T. Washington, a former slave who had founded Alabama's Tuskegee Institute.

C.I. Historical Advisor Anna Farriello says Mr. Washington took the school in a new direction. "As the nation's leading spokesman for the education of African American youth, Washington favored a more practical approach to education," she said.

Mr. Washington supervised education at Institute for 20 years and during that time, the school offered both academic courses and farming and other industrial trades: students learned how to efficiently plant crops and preserve food, or mechanical skills such as metal work.

By the turn of the 20th century, C.I. was thriving. But history professor Peter Wallenstein says the system of segregation in the South left black schools with few resources.

"Black Virginians, like their counterparts in other states, had to work with markedly less by way of public resources and therefore found themselves often reliant on their own resources," he said.

Still, the first four decades of the Christiansburg Institute were marked with success, but the school's best and worst days still lay ahead.

Part of VOA's Black History Month series

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