Rights Heritage Trail Marker To Be Unveiled Today
Sites In County Are Recognized On Civil Rights in Education
Community officials and church leaders will unveil the Civil
Rights in Education Heritage Trail marker at the Mary Bethune
Complex today at 5:30 p.m. in Halifax.
The unveiling comes as the 50th anniversary of Brown v.
Board of Education is recognized throughout the state.
On Friday, Gov. Mark Warner joined local, state and federal
officials at Robert Russa Morton Museum in Farmville for
the official grand opening of the trail.
Halifax County has four sites on the 300-mile driving trail
which passes through Petersburg and 13 Southern Virginia
The Halifax County sites are Mary Bethune High School (now
a county government building) in Halifax, Washington-Coleman
Elementary School at 1927 Jeffress Blvd. and Mizpah Church
at 308 Ragland Street, both in South Boston, and Meadville
Community Center on Route 57 (Chatham Road).
The trail is described by its founders as "the first
memorial trail of its kind in Virginia dedicated to commemorating
the African-American, American-Indian and women's struggle
The following are the four Halifax Heritage sites as profiled
for the tour.
Mary Bethune Complex
The Banister Baptist Association built a private African-American
training school in 1827, originally consisting of four wooden
buildings and a dormitory.
This school year was six months, and the grades went only
as far as the ninth.
Because of transportation difficulties in a county as large
as Halifax, the school was primarily a boarding school.
Board was $200 a year, which was prohibitive for most blacks
at the time.
In 1920 the school was rebuilt as the Halifax Training School
to house African-America high school students. Later it
was upgraded and renamed the Mary Bethune School.
By 1950 it was the state's largest rural black high school,
according to a Heritage Trail press release.
While there was no running water in labs, little money for
equipment and supplies, and no transportation, a national
magazine reported that 27 of the 64 seniors went on to college,
far above the national average of 20 percent at that time.
In 1956, in order to meet "separate but equal"
standards and stave off integration in the face of court
decisions, the county erected the present building, officially
named the Mary M. Bethune High School of Halifax County.
(W.C. Edwards served as principal of both Halifax Training
Center and Mary Bethune High School from 1934-1966.)
Despite the county's efforts, the school was the hub of
the local integration movement in 1969. After integration
in 1970, Mary M. Bethune became a junior high school. All
county high school students - black and white- attended
Halifax Senior High School.
The original Mary M. Bethune High School building has subsequently
been renovated. It still provides services for the community
under the new guise of the Mary M. Bethune Government Office
Complex, School System and Child Care Center.
Many churches in the second half of the 19th century and
early part of the 20th century helped fill African Americans'
need for schooling. Frequently the church would raise funds
to build the school, with county governments occasionally
offering some limited financial assistance. Parents donated
much of the building labor and materials. They were also
largely responsible for land and building maintenance once
the school was built.
The Mizpah Presbyterian Church, founded in 1890, is an example
of such a collaboration. In 1901 the Mizpah School was constructed
on the land where the church still stands. The school served
local black children in grades one through seven. Teachers
were poorly paid, often living with students' parents and
moving from one family to another. For their board they
were expected to keep up the maintenance of the school building
by sweeping, applying oil to the floors to keep the dust
down, shoveling coal or putting wood in the stove, and simultaneously
supervising the children. There were, however, highly respected
in their community and looked to for leadership.
Because the school was connected with the church, students
not only studied the "three r's" but also memorized
Bible verses and sang hymns and songs. Many families relied
on their children to work the fields with them, though,
so the school year was seldom more than four or five months
long, and absenteeism was high.
In 1935 the Mizpah School was converted to a community day
care facility, one of the first at that time in Southside
Virginia. (The Honorable William A Kent (1914-1993) served
for many years as church elder and clerk of the session.
He became the first African-American elected to public office
in South Boston when he joined the city council in 1969.
He served eight years as vice-mayor and four years as mayor.
He retired in 1990 as mayor. He was the owner/operator of
Kent's Funeral Service in South Boston.)
Washington-Coleman Elementary School
Determined to provide elementary education for young African
Americans, the Rev. Parham B. Ragland started a school in
his backyard some time around 1875. Though the "Backyard
School" was private, Rev. Ragland was able to garner
financial support for his project from the town of South
Boston, thus representing the first known public support
of black education in Halifax County. The one-room school
grew and led to the establishment of a public black grammar
school in Bloodfield (also called Mayfield). The school
was eventually named the M.H. Coleman Grammar School. Though
it was damaged by fire in 1937, it was repaired, reopened
and operated until 1948, at which time it was moved to the
former Booker T. Washington High School building.
Booker T. Washington High School had been built for the
black high school students who had been attending classes
in unsatisfactory quarters above a store at 1811 North Main
Street in South Boston. By 1932 funds raised by the black
community were joined with those from the South Boston School
Board to build this four-room school with library, multi-purpose
rooms and a central office. Although the building was well
equipped, it was a small school and limited in curriculum.
In 1948 Washington High was merged with the Halifax Training
School to provide a centralized black high school with an
expanded curriculum. In 1969 Halifax high schools were integrated,
and all black and white high school students went to the
Centerville High School. The former all-black high school
was then renamed Washington-Coleman Elementary School and
still serves as an active part of Halifax's educational
community. (Matthew Hale Coleman, teacher and first principal
of the first publicly funded grammar school for black students
in the City of South Boston.)
Meadville Community Center
Caleb Robinson was born in Jamaica in 1864 and educated
at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. In 1893
he formed the McKinley Institute on land he purchased in
the Meadville section of Halifax County. He imported northern
teachers to train African-American girls in reading, writing
and industrial arts at the school. On his deathbed Professor
Robinson gave the land to the school's executive board.
He had expressed to them his dream of an African-American
gathering place to enhance and educate the community, but
at the time, the community was a poor one, and his idea
lay dormant for a quarter of a century. Then in 1975, three
African-American Baptist organizations, along with local
leaders, formed an organization chartered as the Meadville
Community Center. Through determined community efforts,
they financed and built the present Center, which was dedicated
October 10, 1978. Dr. Martin Luther King Sr. was the guest
speaker at that occasion. The building left the association
in debt for over $90,000, but through sales and raffles,
personal gifts, church assessments and school children's
pennies, the debt was paid and the mortgage burned in 1991.
Today the Center, which seats 400-500 people, is a significant
educational and community focal point, enriching the lives
of the residents of Halifax County and its neighbors. (Three
men who were instrumental in creating the Center were the
Rev. E.G. Williams, first president of the Board of Directors;
Vattell Coleman, treasurer and construction supervisor who
donated his services to build the Center; and Lazarus Bates,
chief fundraiser and board member.)
The Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail tour was established
by Old Dominion Resource Conservation & Development
The trail is managed by Virginia's Retreat, a tourism marketing
consortium comprised of the counties of Amelia, Appomattox,
Brunswick, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Dinwiddie,
Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway and Prince Edward
and the City of Petersburg.
The Department of Transportation provided funding for the
trail with $250,000 grant, some of which was allocated for
the 41 markers.