Hill School history heeds call for help
CHRISTIANSBURG — Sitting atop High Street rests a piece of Montgomery County history that may remain unknown to even the most tenured resident.
That history, many fear, may remain in the dark if drastic measures aren’t taken soon to preserve a historical landmark vital to the area’s identity.
The Christiansburg Community Center — not to be confused with the Christiansburg Recreation Center — is a weathered, two-story building, decorated in a rich history of education, culture and community service.
Built around 1885, the structure is referred to by many rooted in Montgomery County history as the old Hill School but is more commonly known as the birthplace of the Christiansburg Industrial Institute, where black students came from as far as Richmond to receive an education.
Although the building stopped serving as a school in 1953, education still continues under its roof today.
But for more than a decade now, Hill School board members and those with close ties to the center have worried that without major repairs, the building will soon be unsafe to use, thus ending a longtime tutorial program and other efforts provided there.
An upcoming series sponsored by the Montgomery County-Floyd Regional Library will launch next weekend in hopes of bringing awareness back to the building and black history. It has also sparked new life into the movement to save the center by uniting a group of people who may have never crossed paths, including a history professor, a local library manager and 90-year-old Christiansburg resident and Hill School board member Nannie B. Hairston whose legacy echoes throughout the walls of the historic building, one she’d like to someday serve as a museum for black history.
“The thing we want now is to have a place to put history, and if you don’t have a place to put it, it gets destroyed,” Hairston said.
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New light was shed on the needs of the Christiansburg Community Center last year when June Sayers, business manager of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library, stumbled upon the vivid, detailed and, oftentimes, humorous storytelling of Nannie Hairston.
Hairston and her husband, John T., quickly made a name for themselves in the community upon arrival in 1953 through community service. John Hairston, who died in February, received a nationally recognized volunteer award for building houses for low-income families in Montgomery County and the Christiansburg Community Center, and Nannie Hairston received the Maggie L. Walker Community Service Award at the Virginia State NAACP convention, among countless other achievements. Today, you can find a bust of Nannie Hairston in the Montgomery County Government Center and streets lined with houses that would have never been built without John Hairston’s influence.
Interested in sharing the couple’s rich history, “a story that needed to be told,” Sayers began recording Hairston’s stories, where she learned of the Hill School and Hairston’s passion to preserve it. From there, Sayers reconnected with Virginia Tech history professor Daniel Thorp, who has partnered with the library in the past and is currently writing a book on black history in Montgomery County. He has since met on several occasions with Hairston and Lois Teele, another Hill School board member, as references for his research.
Thorp will begin a series of black history programs at the Christiansburg Library on Saturday titled “Sharing America: A Series of Local Black Schools, Churches and Neighborhoods.” Sayers started the “Sharing America” series back in 2010 as an effort to recount local history or to make national history relevant to the area. Later this year, the library will host the 2012 “African American Trailblazers in Virginia History” exhibit, a title Sayers plans on nominating Hairston for next year.
Sayers said she hopes the most recent series on black history unites all races, a challenge she has faced in the past.
“It’s our shared history, but it’s hard to bring all the races together to share it,” she said. “If we always keep it separate, we’re never going to share it.”
In addition to the library programs, Sayers will eventually create a documentary about the Hill School with help from Thorp and a partnership she has formed with Montgomery County. The county’s public information office has agreed to film the documentary, and Thorp will write the script. Sayers also wants to engage with former Hill School alumni to “fill in historical blanks” and hopefully get them involved with the building’s restoration.
When completed, the documentary will be used in various library programs, distributed to schools and will hopefully serve as a fundraising tool for the Hill School.
Sayers said she foresees Hill School board members presenting the documentary to different civic organizations and other groups that might be interested in and capable of helping fund the building’s repairs.
But, most importantly, Sayers said, the entire project is about “making history available to everyone.”
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The Hill School was organized by Capt. Charles Schaeffer, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent, soon after his arrival to the area in 1866.
It was the first, private African American school in Southwest Virginia, according to Hill School documents.
The school eventually moved to what would become High Street in 1868, encompassing two buildings, and later relocated to the building that is currently the Christiansburg Community Center around 1885, where it was officially named the Christiansburg Industrial Institute. Between 1871, when public schools began, and 1901, the number of black public schools in Montgomery County rose from six to 21 and then declined to 17. Oftentimes run out of crude buildings, these schools were scattered throughout the county and were broken down into four districts, each harboring five schools or more, said Thorp, who is continuing his research for a book on black history in Montgomery County. The schools were eventually abandoned as the black population declined, and the buildings probably became part of someone’s barn, fell in or were used for parts, he said.
At the Hill School, students initially received a classical, liberal education of literature, history, math and geography. The educational focus shifted in the late 1800s to more industrialized learning, such as carpentry and blacksmithing. To accommodate additional courses, more than 200 acres of land was purchased on Scattergood Drive — located off North Franklin Street between the aquatic center and Christiansburg High School. Older students were sent there to study, and the building on High Street remained the primary school for younger students, which they referred to as the Hill School.
In 1953, in an effort to avoid integration, Montgomery County closed the Hill School and opened a new elementary school for black children, Friends Elementary School, which is now Christiansburg High School’s technology center.
The Hill School building was used only periodically over the next several years until 1963, when a group of community members helped renovate the building into a community center, a project Nannie Hairston refers to as the “second birth of the Hill School.” The renovations made way for programs such as Christiansburg Head Start and a tutoring program that still operates today after 47 years. The building has been added to the National Register of Historic Places along with its neighbor, Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church, which now owns the community center. A small board of seven fund the building that has seen its share of wear and tear throughout the years.
The most recent report provided by Montgomery County estimated in 2005 the building was in need of $95,600 in repairs — the major cost being a new roof.
Seven years later, and the damage has only gotten worse, board members agree.
“We’re getting down to that situation where they could just padlock the building,” said Hill School advocate William White.
White said the building has many leaks and other “major points” that need to be taken care of before it’s too late.
The board continues to struggle with day-to-day maintenance costs, including the heating bill Hill School board chairman David Moore estimated could reach as high as $2,500 during a harsh winter.
Board members are now talking of forming a fundraising group to actively pursue civic organizations, churches and businesses willing to help fund the renovations, a process Hairston said she’s very familiar with as one of those community members who helped restore the building in the 1960s.
“This is a long, drawn-out project that we’ve been working on for years,” Hairston said.
“We have a group of people concerned in our community, now our next move is to reach out. We can sit here and talk about it, or we go out and do something about it.”
Hairston’s advice has proved successful for another historical site in Montgomery County.
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The Montgomery Museum and Lewis Miller Regional Art Center in Christiansburg is also in dire need of a new roof.
Built in 1852, the 160-year-old building houses historical artifacts related to the area, art shows and collections, a library of historical and genealogical texts and more recently, animals causing major damage.
Sue Farrar, executive director, said the museum is trying to raise $50,000 for a roof and other structural repairs.
“The fact is … this is the county’s museum,” Farrar said. “It is everybody’s heritage and needs to be preserved.”
If repairs aren’t made soon — Farrar hopes they can be achieved by next winter — “we will have serious damage,” she said.
The museum started a campaign called “Raise the Roof” to help raise funds for the building. They have also visited with town and county government and various civic organizations. And with many groups, they have been successful. The Kiwanis Club of Christiansburg and the Rotary Club of Christiansburg-Blacksburg have pledged money.
To date, the museum has raised $12,000, Farrar said, adding that the museum, at this point, is not doing fundraising events, because “we don’t have that strength right now.”
But, she didn’t count out a future partnership with the Hill School board to do fundraising.
Farrar and the Montgomery Museum board set an example of the motivation Hairston would like to rest at the heart of efforts to restore the Christiansburg Community Center.
“You’ve got to be motivated yourself. You can’t motivate somebody else if you’re not gonna be,” Hairston said. “It’s time for us to shape up. It’s long overdue.”
To learn more about the Sharing America sponsored by the Montgomery County-Floyd Regional Library, visit mfrl.org.
The first program is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. and is titled “The Beginnings of Black Education in Montgomery County.”
To donate to the Christiansburg Community Center, mail contributions to P.O. Box 637, Christiansburg, VA 24068.
To learn more about the Montgomery Museum’s “Raise the Roof” campaign, visit montgomerymuseum.org.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1679
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