The Key to Power Introduction to the History of the Christiansburg Institute

Small frame building

For one solid century, from 1866 to 1966, Christiansburg Institute provided education, inspiration, and community for African Americans working to better themselves in the face of adversity. Located in southwest Virginia's Montgomery County, its state and regional political landscape was challenging and dynamic. So, too, were the strategies of its faculty, students, parents, and benefactors. By adapting to a changing world, Christiansburg Institute evolved through every phase of African American education. It now opens its second century as a community learning center dedicated to interracial and intergenerational education.
At left: The first Christiansburg Institute classes were held in a small, rented frame building in Cambria, Virginia, Christiansburg Institute Collection.

Illustration from BTW book
Before emancipation in 1865, African Americans often gained their education in secret. Mothers, fathers, and older kin taught the social and spiritual lessons children needed to survive under slavery and perhaps to escape it. For a few white people, especially antislavery Friends (Quakers) and evangelical Baptists, literacy was key to salvation, including for slaves. But Virginia's legislators feared knowledge in the hands of black people. In the 1830s and 1840s, they made it illegal for white people to teach slaves or even free people of color to read or write. African Americans, however, continued to "steal" literacy and pass it on. As both black and white Virginians knew, education was the key to power.
At left: Illustration from Booker T. Washington, The Story of my Life and Work (Toronto: Nichols, 1901).
Teacher and students

Zealous for knowledge they had long been denied, African Americans in the South after the Civil War crowded into one-room schools opened by the U. S. Freedmen's Bureau and northern-based aid societies. Christiansburg Institute began in 1866 as one such school. It was spearheaded by Charles S. Schaeffer, a white Bureau officer and a fervent Baptist. Over the next three decades, he and the Friends' Freedmen's Association (FFA) of Philadelphia raised most of the school's funding. It was stewarded by a local African-American board of trustees and shared its grounds with the newly founded Christiansburg African Baptist Church.
At left: Teacher and elementary school students posing on steps of the Hill School, ca. late 19th Century, Christiansburg Institute Collection.

Hill School built in 1885

Set atop Zion's Hill overlooking town, the school stretched its resources thin. With only two teachers in 1868, it managed to serve 232 students, including 85 "night scholars," adults who worked during the day. Read Capt. Schaeffer's 1868 report. Virginia created a public school system in 1870, but it was racially segregated and poorly funded. CI remained a private school but did gain some public funds. In the 1870s, it expanded into a new two-story wooden school house. Compounding the benefits of education, it added the Christiansburg Normal Institute, training African-American teachers to serve the next generation. In 1885, marking African Americans' success in 20 years of freedom, two large brick structures rose on Zion's Hill: a new meeting house for the church, and a new classroom building for the school.
At left: A substantial brick building was constructed on Zion's Hill to serve Christiansburg Institute. Later, this building would be known as the Hill School. It would continue to serve the elementary grades under the direction of the Institute until 1934, Christiansburg Institute Collection.

Long and Washington

Booker T. Washington, a Virginia native, agreed to serve as school supervisor in 1895, marking the beginning of the school's transformation into Christiansburg Industrial Institute. As founder and principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Washington (pictured third from the right at left) was pioneering a new movement in education. African Americans' path to education and opportunity was an increasingly narrow one. Local and state governments restricted their voting rights, segregated their public lives, and neglected their schools. Lynching peaked in the 1880s and 1890s, while sharecropping kept thousands of families in debt. Washington navigated these obstacles by emphasizing harmonious race relations coupled with black pride, group support, and vocational training for most African Americans. Washington was a progressive, not a radical. By placating whites, he hoped to provide African Americans in the rural South with an avenue of escape from poverty. For Washington's ideology, read his 1895 Atlanta Exposition speech.
At left: Christiansburg Institute principal Edgar A. Long (second from left) poses with school supervisor Booker T. Washington (third from right) and Robert Moton (second from right), the man who whould succeed him as supervisor, and three unidentified persons, Christiansburg Institute Collection.

Mansion House
The new farm campus purchased in 1896, reflected Booker T. Washington's "up from slavery" theme. A former plantation house served as the classroom building, while the male boarding students slept in renovated slave cabins. The transition was a difficult one, but CII's principals, Charles L. Marshall from 1896 to 1906, and Edgar A. Long from 1906-1924 were determined to realize their vision. Read Marshall's 1906 account of the early transformation. Together with teachers, students, parents, and benefactors, they succeeded.
At left: The former plantation house, called the "Mansion House," which served as the academic classroom building until 1927, Christiansburg Institute Collection.
165 - Acre Campus
By the early 1920s, the campus stood at some 167 acres. It boasted three Georgian brick halls housing dormitories, classrooms, a library, and a hospital. Near these were two Victorian faculty cottages, a dairy, a barn, and a shop building, all surrounded by fields, gardens, and an orchard.
Above: Panoramic view of the campus from one of the farm sections, Christiansburg Institute Collection.
Students Studying
Sewing Class
Carpentry Shop
Academic and practical learning divided students' time. Vocational courses were geared towards gender expectations, with cooking and sewing for the girls and carpentry and animal husbandry for the boys. English, math, history, and Bible courses continued as before. By 1924, CII earned high school accreditation from the State Board of Education. Continuing its tradition of training African-American teachers, it offered college-level professional development at its summer institutes And in 1926, as the Harlem Renaissance flourished, CII was among the first schools in the country to offer a course in African-American history, emphasizing the "Negro as an explorer, inventor, laborer, poet, actor, soldier."
Above: Student life on school campus at the turn of the century. Left to right: students reading in girls' lounge, sewing class, carpentry class, Christiansburg Institute Collection.
Baily-Morris Hall
Public education had long been the goal for local African Americans, the Friends' Freedmen's Association, and other supporters of Christiansburg Industrial Institute. In the 1930s and 1940s, the FFA finally convinced public school board officials to take responsibility for educating African-American citizens. In 1934, they donated the elementary department in the Hill School to Montgomery County. They leased the farm campus as a public regional high school and in 1947 donated it jointly to the school boards of Montgomery and Pulaski counties and the city of Radford. "Industrial" was dropped from its name as it joined the segregated public school system.
At left: CI students, including younger students attending the Hill School, assemble in front of Baily-Morris Hall, Christiansburg Institute Collection.
CII School Band

"Separate but equal" as sanctioned by the Supreme Court 1896, was Virginia's policy in education, with the emphasis clearly on "separate" and not "equal." In segregated states, public schools for African Americans were often in abysmal condition or nonexistent. Facilities at the Hill School and Christiansburg Institute, however, were relatively ample, thanks to the vision of the principals, the generosity of benefactors, and the hard work of the students. With a long tradition of black leadership, a well-educated faculty, and the support of parents, the Hill School and Christiansburg Institute continued to serve their students admirably as public schools, despite segregation. Under the county's stewardship, a gymnasium was constructed and students' extracurricular activities - band, competitive football, and intramural basketball - continued.
At left: Christiansburg Industrial Institute 1946 marching band under the leadership of Zedikiah Holmes (1st, row far left).

1966 Graduating Class
Decades of civil rights struggle finally brought African Americans broader access to public education. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled with black plaintiffs that segregated public education was unconstitutional. It took the 1964 Civil Rights Act, however, to force desegregation. The Friends' Freedmen's Association in 1947 had hoped that if Virginia ever allowed for "non-segregation in the education of the races," that CI would continue to serve. But rather than integrate CI, in 1966 the public school boards abandoned it. Alumni had to watch as their alma mater's campus was sold off, neglected, and mostly demolished. The Hill School building, meanwhile, was donated to the church now known as Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church, thus reunited with its sister institution on Zion's Hill. The civil rights victory was bittersweet.
At left: 1966 class picture, Christiansburg Institute Collection.
Edger A. Long Building
Christiansburg Institute's Legacy lives on. The century-long struggle of its students, faculty, parents, and benefactors was not in vain. They built CI to open opportunities, and they helped break down segregation to gain full access to those opportunities. They continue to do so today. Alumni organized in 1976 to save the last remaining academic building from the wrecking ball.Thanks to their hard work and the generosity of donors, Christiansburg Institute, Inc., has been re-established on four acres of the former farm campus. The Edgar A. Long Building, erected in 1927 and pictured at left, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is recognized as a Virginia Historic Landmark. Once renovated, it will reopen as a museum, archive, and community learning center open to all.
At left: Edgar A. Long building today, Photograph courtesy of Anna Fariello.
Rotating Images
Education is the key to power. Christiansburg Institute's past as an interracial, intergenerational, and interregional experiment in education is a key to our future. In collaborative projects, CI alumni impart knowledge and the spirit of CI to students from elementary school through college. CI's online archive and exhibits reach out to a national and even international audience of humanities scholars and viewers. And at our community learning center, we will work to close the digital divide through network access, computer literacy, and software workshops. Christiansburg Institute's second century is dedicated not only to our past but to our future.

Sources and Further Reading

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