May 19, 2004    


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Civil Rights Heritage Trail Marker To Be Unveiled Today
Four Sites In County Are Recognized On Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail


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 counties.

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 for equality."

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.

Mizpah Church

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 Council.

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.

 

   


May 20 News Story: News & Record - Bethune Heritage Marker Unveiled

U.S. Department of Agriculture  Video