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Alumni Hope to Rebuild Christiansburg Institute - 2002-02-22

When the 100-year-old Christiansburg Institute closed in 1966, it left a void in the hearts of the men and women who had attended the school. The all-black school was located in the southern American state of Virginia

Even though Christiansburg Institute, or C.I., has been closed for more than 35 years, the alumni association still holds a reunion every summer. Hundreds of former students return to Montgomery County, Virginia to catch up on old times and old friends. Esther Jones graduated from C.I. in 1939 and says the school was a big inspiration in her life.

"The discipline and the learning there: there's nothing to compare to it," she said. "It's carried me a long ways."

"It was the focal point of the community," said 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 C.I.

"It was really the center of entertainment that's what I would say it was," she said. "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."

After schools were desegregated, families which had sent generations of children to Christiansburg Institute had to send their students to previously all-white schools instead. C.I. 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 said.

Another C.I. graduate, Elaine Carter, is now executive director of Christiansburg Institute Incorporated, a non-profit group that hopes to restore the school. She says the task is daunting. The one remaining building requires hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovation. And the school's records have been scattered.

"We know that right now officially the [Virginia] Board of Education, which had possession of the records, has two file cabinets, basically four drawers of records," Ms. Carter said.

The drawers contain mostly student records from the last 20 years of C.I.'s existence. Records from the days when the school was run by Quakers under the supervision of Booker T. Washington are largely scattered across the South, in the possession of the descendants of former faculty and students.

For the past few years, a group of volunteers has been working to interview elderly alumni whose memories are a valuable component in reconstructing the school's history. And, C.I.'s historical advisor Anna Fariello is organizing all of the school's existing records to create a comprehensive timeline. Elaine Carter says the Institute must know its history in order to rebuild.

"The restored Christiansburg Institute is really, we like to describe it as being based on four pillars," she said. "One of the pillars, certainly, is going to be an archive, which is to preserve that history, but to do it in such a way that is accessible to students and scholars and to have ongoing work to keep that memory alive."

Ms. Carter says a museum is the second "pillar" of the restored institute. The third is a community learning center. The fourth pillar is coursework that will bring people of different ages and races together. Ms. Carter maintains that while most institutions in the United States are desegregated, they are not truly integrated. The goal of the new C.I., she says, will be to bridge the gap.

"Meaning that we will be reaching out and beginning to have an ongoing dialogue about how to make it something called 'integrated' so that people who are there will have a sense of ownership in the place," Ms. Carter said.

Elaine Carter believes that with a sense of ownership comes a sense of responsibility. She 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. Ms. Carter recently spoke at a Quaker convention, reminding the Society of Friends of their historical connection to a school that sought to educate a people and bring them up from slavery.

"So let us go to work to recapture that history and to make it come alive again - not just in terms of archives and photographs, but in terms of a living institution [that will] sustain and carry on the legacies that we inherited, [legacies] that grew out of the Friends and their devotion to abolition and their devotion to education, their devotion to social justice and the ability to see the humanness in every human creature," she said.

In rediscovering the school's past, the alumni of Christiansburg Institute hope to build a future that will serve many more generations.

Part of VOA's Black History Month series