Black History Trail

The Black History Trail is a self-guided family-friendly driving tour that explores the history of African American life in Christiansburg, VA.

Several sites on the trail are private property.

This is a driving only tour.

The trail begins at Christiansburg’s Town Square,

2 E. Main Street, where enslaved people were regularly sold at public auction before Emancipation.

Hill School Community Center and Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church, 580 High St. NE.

The trail jumps ahead to the Reconstruction Era. The Hill School, an early iteration of C.I., was built in 1885 to educate the formerly enslaved.

Historic Christiansburg Institute, 140 Scattergood Dr.

Next up is the historic site of the C.I. farm campus where thousands of students received an education at the school, supervised by

Booker T. Washington from 1894-1919.

Friends Elementary School,1180 N. Franklin St.

A former African American primary school located on the hill overlooking the CI farm campus.

Rosa L. Peters Playground, 260 Depot St. NE. A formerly segregated playground for, and purchased by, African Americans located off Depot Street.

Helpful Vocabulary Terms

Brown v. Board of Education

The1954 Supreme Court decision that decided the racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.  

Freedmen's Bureau

A U.S. Government agency that provided practical aid to 4,000,000 newly freed African Americans in their transition from slavery to freedom from1865 to 1872.

Jim Crow

A series of racist, anti-Black laws that enforced segregation and disenfranchised African Americans. 

Reconstruction Era

The period (1865-1877) that followed the Civil War where the country tried to address the inequities of slavery and their political, social, and economic legacy.

"Separate but Equal" doctrine

Established the 1896 Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision.  It decided that racially separate facility did not violate the Constitution as long as they were equal.  Therefore, segregation was not discrimination.

Tuskegee Institute

An industrial school in Alabama created by Booker T. Washington in 1881. Its philosophy believed African Americans would achieve equality through economic independence.

Enslaved men and women toiled on

Montgomery County's farms and

plantations, fueling the local economy. 

Throughout Virginia, slavery was

decreasing as farmers switched

from growing to tobacco to wheat. 

 

Slavery grew in Montgomery County, especially after the construction of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in 1854.  The railway system made it easier and more efficient for white farmers to transport the products made by slave labor to markets in the east and north. By 1860, there were 2,219 enslaved men and women in the county.

Slave auctions were held on the Town Square in Christiansburg. Eunice Brown (c.1850-1946) recalled men and women being kept in the jail before auction. They were then led to the square one at a time and placed on a six-foot tall stump, giving the men who came to buy them a better view. Slave auctions were both humiliating and devastating to the Black family unit, often tearing families apart. Mary Brown (born c. 1819), Eunice's mother, passed down stories to her grandchildren. She bitterly recalled the day her sons were sold to slave traders. 

This chapter in Montgomery County's history, while difficult, is uniquely part of our shared story. We must together confront this truth with courage and honesty; that we might build a more transparent and empathetic community where healing and restoration is discovered.

Stop 1

Auction Block

"Miss Fillis and child, and Bill, sold at publick sale in May 12th, Christiansburg, Montgomery County", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed January 28, 2021, http://slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/1908.

Suggested Reading

  • Now Let Me Fly: The Story of a Slave Family

    By Delores Johnson, for children ages 5-10

  • Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington's Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away

    By Erica Armstrong Dunbar, for children ages 9-13

  • Barracoon: The Last Story of the Last Slave

    By Zora Neale Hurston

  • The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

    Edward E. Baptist

Stop 2

Hill School & Charles Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church

Christiansburg Institute was founded in 1866 after the Civil War

to educate the formerly enslaved. Captain Charles S. Schaeffer, an

agent of the Freedmen's Bureau, organized with local African American

community members in Christiansburg and established Christiansburg

School No. 1 (the first iteration of CI) in a room rented in Nancy

Campbell’s log cabin. Nancy Campbell was an African American

resident in Christiansburg who was a freeperson before Emancipation. 

In 1885, Schaeffer and the local African American community built

two large brick structures that served as a church and school house.

The school was known as the ‘Hill School’ and the church, originally

named ‘First African Baptist Church’, was later renamed

‘Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church’. 

 

White citizens of Montgomery County often viewed Schaeffer and

the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau with suspicion, particularly after

the well-known incident at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. According to Amanda DeHart in her book, ‘Christiansburg Institute: A Proud Heritage’,

 

 “...as they came together to worship, a mob of whites...coming up from the town, would surround the meeting house (church), and by shouts, ridicule, and threats to burn the building down to seek to disperse the assembly...the opposition became so alarming that the brethren, as a precautionary measure, brought their firearms to the place of worship and stacked them in a corner during service”

 

Despite these violent efforts, African Americans locally remained steadfast in their commitment to education and worship. Over 200 students attended the school annually. Amanda Dehart writes,

 

 “During this period of nearly three decades, the school grew from a primary one, with a handful of students, studying literary and religious subjects, to an institution which encompassed a normal school for the preparation of prospective teachers, and finally one which encompassed industrial or vocational training.”

After CI expanded to its larger farm campus site in 1895, under the supervision of Booker T. Washington and with the financial support from a philanthropic Quaker organization, the Friends Freedmen Association (FFA), the Hill School remained the Preparatory Industrial School for Black Students until 1953. Today, the Hill School - renamed the ‘Hill School Community Center’, is owned by the Board of Deacons of Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church and managed by a board made up of local African American community members.

Suggested Reading

  • Ellen's Broom

    By Kelly Starling Lyons, for children ages 5-8

  • By Lesa Cline-Ransome, for children ages 4-8

  • Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876

  • Reconstruction Updated Edition: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

    By Eric Foner

Stop 3

Christiansburg Institute

Christiansburg Industrial Institute (C.I.I.) moved to the farm campus under the direction of school supervisor, Booker T. Washington, in 1896.  Now modeled after Tuskegee Institute, C.I.I. continued to teach traditional subjects while using the additional 185-acres to teach industrial skills that graduates could use to earn a living. Washington believed that “economic independence is the foundation of political independence…" 

The echoes of slavery haunted the land.  The “Mansion House” served as a classroom building and teachers’ residence. Male students lived in the old slave cabins until the Morris Hall dormitory was built in 1903.  An alum noted the irony when they spoke to the 1906 graduating class: 

A plantation upon which men and women were driven to unrequited toil by the stern command of a task... master had been converted into a model training farm.... The slave mansion, once the headquarters of master and owner of human beings, has become the seat of instruction where the posterity of the victims of servitude are being fitted for Christian citizenship.

Despite these hardships, the school continued to succeed and prosper under the leadership of an all African American staff comprised of highly skilled educators and instructors. By the 1940s, Christiansburg Industrial Institute had grown to a campus of approximately 14 buildings. In  Students traveled from across the country to attend.  Many graduates went on to attend college and became active and contributing citizens in their communities.


C.I.I. was converted in 1947 to a regional high school for African-American students, and closed in 1966 when the local schools were integrated. Local government agencies, who now owned and operated the school, divided the campus into 16 lots and sold them at public auction. The school buildings were subsequently destroyed by wrecking ball and crane.

Today Christiansburg Institute, Inc. and the Christiansburg Institute Alumni Association, two separate non-profit organizations, are jointly committed to the revitalization of the historic Institute and it's 100-year legacy of education and empowerment. To learn more, visit us at www.christiansburginstitute.com.

Video: A school memory of Debbie Sherman-Lee, alumna and Chair of C.I. Inc.

Suggested Reading

  • With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School

    By Suzanne Slade  and Nicole Tadgell, for ages 4-8

  • By Tonya Bolden, for children ages 8-12

  • Up from Slavery

    By Booker T. Washington

  • Stony the Road : Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow

    By Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In 1953, Montgomery County closed the Hill School and opened a new Black elementary school, Friends Elementary.  Reverend Archie L. Richmond became principal, though his Civil Rights activism threatened his position.  On August 22, 1955, Reverend Richmond refused to obey state law and leave the whites-only section of Cater Memorial Park in Wythe County, VA.  He and 50 of his congregants, including women and children, held a picnic.  The police arrested him and held him at bond for $500.  Reverend Richmond recalled "sitting there thinking of all the things they did to make life miserable for Black people.  I felt resentment, not anger.  I decided it was time to make a stand." 

Reverend Richmond was nearly fired from Friends Elementary School for defying the Jim Crow law.  Friends Elementary continued to operate as a segregated school until "Separate but Equal" was declared illegal in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.  The building is now Montgomery County Public Schools Technology Center.

In 1953, Montgomery County Public Schools closed the Hill School. Complaints from locals that the Hill School was not "equal" to the white elementary schools in the county pushed local government to open a new African American elementary school, Friends Elementary in Christiansburg in 1954.  Reverend Archie L. Richmond became the schools first principal.  Reverend Richmond led 50 of his congregants from Blacksburg A.M.E. Church on a picnic in the whites-only section of Carter Memorial Park in Wythe County, VA, in 1955.

Friends Elementary continued to operate as a segregated school until "Separate but Equal" was declared illegal in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1896. Today, the building is used by the 'Montgomery County Corp of Cadets'.

Suggested Reading

  • Lillie Mae Found Her School

    By Rita Odom Moseley, for ages 4-6

  • Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

    By John Lewis

  • Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

Stop 4

Friends Elementary School

Stop 5

Rosa L. Peters Playground

In the 1930s, a group of Black citizens, originally led by P.T. (Tim) Mallory formed the "Civic Betterment League of Christiansburg" to improve the health of the community by creating recreational facilities for their children. They opened a park on Depot Street in the 1930s so Black children in the community had a safe place to play.  Under "separate but equal" doctrine, Black children could not use the whites-only playgrounds built by the Town of Christiansburg.  However, funding the park proved difficult over time.

 

Then it was discovered in 1944 that Rosa Lee Peters, an African American woman, left her entire estate ($60,000) to fund the park.  Peters was born in Christiansburg on March 5, 1882.  She left the area, married, and traveled the world before settling in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Before here death, she travelled to Christiansburg to visit her sister.  She saw the community centered around Depot Street struggling to keep the park open and decided to leave everything she owned to the park upon her passing.

 

The "Civic Betterment League of Christiansburg" incorporated themselves as the “Children’s Playground for the Negro Children of Christiansburg (Va.) U.S.A.”  The first board of trustees were: Alfonso James, president; Elmer A. Bishop, vice president; S. B. Morgan, treasurer, and Dessie Mallory, secretary.  Other members of the board were H. Leslie Giles (a C.I. principal), Flint McNorton, J. D. Jones, Nathan Holmes, Trigg Nowlin, Katie Pate, Reverend G. M. Calloway, E. G. Reynolds, and J. B. Cooley.

 

This group, though now renamed, continues to privately operate the playground today, though it is open to children of all races.  It is managed by a largely Black Board of Trustees, and is well supported by the community, regularly receiving donations from churches and other organizations. 

Suggested Reading

  • Stella by the Starlight

    By Sharon M. Draper, for ages 8-13

  • By Nikki Giovanni, for ages 4-8

  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

    By Richard Rothstein

  • Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s

    By Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer

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