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Former School for Freed Slaves Launches Effort to Recover History Through Documents, Photographs - 2004-05-15

After the American Civil War of the 1860s, numerous schools opened across the South to educate freed slaves. For a century, one of them -- Christiansburg Institute -- drew students from across the nation. They came to its 75-hectare campus in Christiansburg, Virginia, to learn reading and writing, as well as practical agricultural and trade skills. When court-ordered desegregation finally came to Virginia, this unique educational institution was forced to close its doors. But now, CI's supporters and alumni are on a quest to recover its history through documents, photographs, memories and service.

The Christiansburg Institute was founded in 1866 by a former Civil War General to help emancipated slaves obtain skills they would need to make a living as free people. The school grew over the next 60 years with the help of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, a religious group dedicated to helping African Americans make the transition to freedom.

Anna Fariello is the historical advisor to a group hoping to renovate the school. She says the Quakers spent thousands of dollars to build the school because it was helping blacks in Montgomery County and other communities in Southwest Virginia.

"By 1910, 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..." she explains.

At the time, Virginia law and tradition mandated that whites and blacks attend separate classes. The Christiansburg Institute was unique because among its buildings was Baily-Morris Hall, a multi-purpose structure that housed a dining room, a library for 5,000 books, and a 300-seat assembly hall.

Few white schools in rural areas could boast such a structure. Ms. Fariello says the Institute worked hard to craft a balance between a practical and a classical education, and its success lured students from near and far.

"As the school's reputation spread, the school drew students from great distances," she explains. "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." However, 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. The farm, although still part of school property, was phased out as an educational resource," she explains. "The industrial curriculum was reframed in a language recognizable today: carpentry became industrial arts, sewing and cooking became home economics."

Though an experiment in black empowerment had come to an end, the Christiansburg Institute was still the only high school in the area open to blacks. History professor Peter Wallenstein, at nearby Virginia Tech University, says black students were bussed to Christiansburg Institute, sometimes from as far as 100 kilometers away.

"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," he says.

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 school.

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 of schools 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..." he says.

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. CI graduate Catherine Grubb says for those youngsters, the new schools lacked the history, the pride, and the same sense of community.

"We needed integration, but I am so sorry that the kids who came up after me didn't have that experience," she says. "I have younger sisters and they are so sorry they didn't get the opportunity to attend Christiansburg Institute because it was a great thing."

"It was the focal point of the community..." adds Erma Jones, who received her diploma in 1960, and now teaches in the Montgomery County school system. She says that when she was growing up, the social life of the African American community in the area revolved around CI.

"It was really the center of entertainment that's what I would say it was... 'Cause we had very good programs: we had excellent art activities. Everybody would look forward to plays that we would give, or the activity highlight nights," she recalls.

But after schools were desegregated, that all changed. The county sold all of the buildings at public auction, and most of the campus was demolished to make way for a proposed industrial park that was never finished. 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 academic building is left of the once proud Christiansburg Institute. Elaine Carter, a graduate of the class of 1948, is now leading an effort to renovate the school to restore a key pillar of the area's black community.

"[Meaning that] We will be reaching out and beginning to have an ongoing dialogue within the institution [about] how to make it something called 'integrated' so that people who are there will have a sense of ownership in the place," she says.

Ms. Carter says the old Christiansburg Institute instilled in its students the value of charity and giving back to the community. It's in that spirit that the alumni are trying to rebuild the school. Now, the search for donations has led the project back to its roots to the Quakers who helped run and finance the school for most of its 100 years.