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Halifax holds key place on civil right trail

South Boston News
Mizpah Presbyterian Church in South Boston / January 20, 2020

Halifax County’s importance in the historical struggle to provide free and equal education for all people — black, brown and white — is gaining fresh recognition with the inclusion of a fifth county site on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail.

The driving tour, developed throughout Central and Southside Virginia in 2004, honors the region’s connection to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that ended forced segregation in public education. The Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail includes 41 stops along the way from Petersburg to Prince Edward to Virginia’s southern tier counties of Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick. Four stops are located in Halifax County.

A fifth county site, the L.E. Coleman Museum west of the Town of Halifax, is among a dozen additional landmarks that will soon be added to the Heritage Trail.

Earlier this month, the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission recognized the significance of preserving Southside Virginia’s historic role as the birthplace of free public education by approving a $70,000 grant to add 12 new sites to the trail and upgrade existing location markers. Among the sites that will receive new signage are the four in Halifax County: Mary Bethune High School in Halifax (now the Bethune Office Complex), Washington Coleman Elementary School (now a community center), Mizpah Presbyterian Church in South Boston, and Meadville Community Center.

Even before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his long fight to achieve equality of the races in America, there were people in Southside Virginia who worked to bring free and equal educational opportunities to all, regardless of their race, sex, or creed.

Their quest to establish a more just public educational system in the United States spanned more than a century. Today the sites that make up the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail are a remembrance of their sacrifices and struggles.

The trail’s many notable sites include the northeast corner of Harrison and Fillmore in Petersburg, site of the earliest known public high school for African American students in Virginia; a Rosenwald School in Cumberland and one-room schoolhouse in Buckingham; Carver-Price School in Appomattox; Virginia State University in Chesterfield; the St. Paul’s College campus in Brunswick; and Thyne Institute in Mecklenburg.

Prince Edward County, which has the most stops on the driving trail — six — is site of one of Virginia’s most notorious actions of the Massive Resistance era, the closing of the county’s schools from 1959 to 1964. During that period, county leaders diverted public education funds to a whites-only academy that was founded to serve white children. The shutdown of Prince Edward schools sparked outrage in the U.S. and around the world. “The only places on Earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras — and Prince Edward County, Virginia,” said Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy at the time.

Robert Russa Moton High School, where a 16-year-old student, Barbara Johns, led a 1951 walkout of black students to protest the school’s ramshackle condition under the separate but equal doctrine of segregated education, is now Robert Russa Moton Museum. It is one of the many highlights on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail.

About Halifax County’s sites:

Mary M. Bethune High School originated in 1898 as the Halifax Normal Institute. A board of 11 ministers, business leaders, and parents who were members of the Banister Baptist Association established the school. The site was purchased in 1920 by the Halifax County School Board and used to educate African American students living in and around the Town of Halifax.

By the time it was turned over to the county, the highest grade level at the Bethune School was ninth grade, and the school year ran for six months from October through March. The curriculum included courses in English, history, social studies, math, science and a foreign language.

By 1948, when the campus became the consolidated high school for all black children in Halifax County, Mary Bethune was known at the time as “the state’s largest rural Negro high school.” Following integration in 1969, Mary Bethune High School became Halifax County Junior High School, where students of all races in grades 8-9 attended school. After the junior high closed in 1980, the building was renovated as the Mary Bethune Office Complex, home of county and school administrative offices.

The name of the school was changed to Halifax Training School in the 1920s and then again to Mary M. Bethune High School in 1956. Educator, philanthropist, and civil rights activist Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was a co-founder of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and founded a private school for African American students in Daytona Beach, Fla., where she lived.

The Washington Coleman Elementary School on Jeffress Boulevard in South Boston began as the Booker T. Washington High School in 1932. Its roots date back to 1875 when Rev. Parham B. Ragland formed a one-room black grammar school in the Mayfield section of Halifax County with financial support from the Town of South Boston. This partnership represented the first known public support of black education in Halifax County.

Ragland’s school, then known as M.H. Coleman Grammar School, moved to the former Booker T. Washington High School building in 1948, after that high school merged with the Mary M. Bethune high school.

Booker T. Washington High School had been built for the black high school students who had been attending classes in rundown spaces above a store in South Boston. In 1969, the school was renamed Washington-Coleman Elementary School. It still serves as an active part of Halifax’s educational community as the Washington Coleman Community Center, operated by the Town of South Hill.

The Mizpah Presbyterian Church in the Town of South Boston, located on 308 Ragland Street behind Taylor Lofts, was founded in 1890. The land on which it sits today was once home to Mizpah School, built in 1901 to education black children in grades 1-7.

Because the school was connected with the church, students studied reading, writing and arithmetic as well as religion, memorizing Bible verses and hymns. Children attending the school were expected to help work the area farm fields with their families. Therefore, the school year generally lasted less than five months and absenteeism was high.

In 1935, the Mizpah School became one of the first community day care facilities in Southside Virginia.

The Meadville Community Center on Chatham Road in Meadville was the dream of Caleb Robinson. He wanted a place where African-Americans living in the Meadville section of Halifax County could gather to study and commune.

Born in Jamaica, Robinson created the McKinley Institute for girls in Meadville following his graduation from Virginia Union University in 1893. He imported teachers from the north who taught reading, writing, and industrial arts.

After Robinson died, the school’s executive board made plans to open the school to the entire community, but lacked funding. In 1975, three African-American Baptist organizations joined with local leaders to create the Meadville Community Center, a 500-seat facility that offers educational and community programing to residents of Halifax County.

The Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail was established by the Old Dominion Resource Conservation & Development Council, with funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation. Today it is managed by Virginia Crossroads, a tourism marketing consortium of the 14 member localities.

Information about the trail is available at all Virginia Tourism Welcome Centers and area visitors centers, including the Halifax County Visitor Center on Bill Tuck Highway.

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