History of Christiansburg Institute

The Christiansburg Industrial Institute (CII) was founded in 1866 as an educational institution for formerly enslaved people in Cambria (now Christiansburg), Virginia, by Civil War Union Captain Charles S. Schaeffer, an agent of the Freedmen's Bureau, and with the eventual support of the Friends Freedmen's Association in Philadelphia, a Quaker organization who provided both funding and direction of the school’s operation. In 1896 Booker T. Washington re-shaped the school’s classical curriculum to the vocational and technical model exemplified by the Tuskegee Institute. A 185-acre farm was purchased for the school’s expansion in 1905, and by the 1940s, the Christiansburg Industrial Institute had grown to a campus of approximately 14 buildings.

The campus functioned as a teacher educational facility as well as a training school, and was regarded as a paragon of educational excellence, recognized by both the State Board of Education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Christiansburg Institute’s  impressive

credentials made it the equal, if not superior in many cases, of the area’s white-only public schools, and one of the nation’s premier African-American schools. In 1934 the Montgomery County School Board began its management of the school. CII was converted in 1947 to a regional high school for African-American students, and closed in 1966 when the local schools were integrated.

The Early Years

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. 

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.

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. 

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.  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.

An Industrial Education

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. 

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. Together with teachers, students, parents, and benefactors, they succeeded.

 

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.

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."

Students in sewing class

Students reading in girls' lounge

Students in carpentry class

The Unintended Consequences of Desegregation

"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.

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, as the 185 acre Christiansburg Institute campus was sold and its buildings were destroyed. The Edgar A. Long building is the last surviving structure.

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Christiansburg Institute 1866 to 1966 logo with tiger, alumni pride