May 20, 2004


William Fitzgerald, chairman of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors and Frank Carr unveil the marker designating the Mary Bethune High School as one of four Halifax County sites to be included on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. (SOMcL photo)

Bethune Heritage Marker Unveiled

The rain didn’t stop them as community leaders and residents gathered at the Mary M. Bethune Complex Monday afternoon to unveil the marker designating the Mary M. Bethune High School as a site on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. The facility now serves as the county government office complex in the Town of Halifax.

The unveiling came on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and brought back memories of those who attended the all black high school, opened in 1920.

Frank Carr, a former student at the school expressed his appreciation to those who worked to make Mary Bethune a part of the trail. Unveiling the marker, he said, made memories of the school “run through the hearts and minds of the students. Our teachers took an interest in every student,” Carr said, remembering particularly the leadership of former school principal Lazarus Bates. “It was a joy to be at Mary Bethune, it was truly a blessing,” Carr said of the school which was the first public black high school for Halifax County students. In 1950 it was the state’s largest rural black high school.

The school was originally purchased from the Banister Baptist Association in 1920. Prior to that time, in 1872, the Banister Baptist Association set up a board of eleven men to get a school built and operating for black students. The school opened in 1898 and the original buildings consisted of four or five wooden buildings and was known as the Halifax Normal Institute. The Institute closed in the early twenties when the County School Board bought the property for use as a public school.

In the early 1920’s the school year was five months longm beginning around October and teacher salaries averaged about $25.30 per month. The school was named for Mary McLeod Bethune, a black educator, civil rights leader, presidential adviser and founder of black women’s clubs who was convinced that education was the most powerful weapon in the fight against black powerlessness and racial subordination.

Harvey Dillard, who worked at the school during the years of 1959 to 1991 as a teacher, football coach and assistant principal, noted that the Bethune Complex “is one of a very few structures still standing that served black folks, with many others having been vandalized and torn up in years past. You should feel proud of this structure which was named for a great woman and educator who lived in Florida,” Dillard said. “The children of Halifax County need to know the origin of the name of this building,” he added, noting that Judge Joel Cunningham, Supervisor W. Bryant Claiborne, former county Supervision William E. Coleman and many others who had gone on to high achievements had been products of Mary Bethune. Dillard spoke on behalf of Mr. Lazarus Bates who was unable to attend the event, and he thanked Halifax Town Manager Carl Espy for his effort in working on the trail designation. “It says a lot about the people of Halifax County,” Dillard said.

The driving trail, which passes through 13 Southern Virginia counties has markers and detailed interpretations of 41 historically significant sites and was opened last week in Farmville as Governor Mark Warner officially kicked off the celebration of its beginning. The trail tells the poignant and often explosive story of the struggle for equal rights by blacks, American Indians and women.

The trail also includes three other sites in Halifax County: Washington-Coleman Elementary School at 1927 Jeffress Boulevard; Mizpah Church at 308 Ragland Street, South Boston and the Meadsville Community Center, located on Route 57 near the Pittsylvania County line.

In other reports Monday night two local high school students, Zena Jeffress and Melvin Reynolds, advised Supervisors about their upcoming Ambassador Program mission to New Zealand and Australia where they will be participating in the “People to People Program,” established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to allow people of different cultures to learn from each other and to have a better understanding of other countries. .