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Class portraits from Mary Bethune High School adorn the walls of the L.E. Coleman African-American Museum, which has been selected for inclusion on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. / January 20, 2020

“Come and learn the history of what our ancestors went through,” says Carol Lewis, assistant curator at the L.E. Coleman African-American Museum on Mountain Road, some eight miles west of the Town of Halifax.

Founded in 2005 by Shirley Chandler, the museum is a storehouse of knowledge on African American life in Halifax County, with books, historical displays and vintage photographs conveying the experiences of local black leaders and residents.

The L.E. Coleman Museum tells the history of efforts to educate local African American students under the repressive weight of separate but equal education in America, the doctrine that was overturned in the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

The importance of the museum and the school that preceded it — Mountain Road School No. 1 — has gained a regional platform: the L.E. Coleman Museum is one of 12 sites in central and southern Virginia selected for inclusion on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. The driving trail is expanding from 41 to 53 sites with the assistance of a $70,000 grant from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, approved earlier this month.

The L.E. Coleman Museum joins four county sites that already are on the Education Heritage Trail: Mary Bethune High School, Washington-Coleman Elementary, the Meadville Community Center, and Mizpah Presbyterian Church in South Boston.

Visitors to the museum step back in time when they enter the doors. Originally known as Mountain Road School No. 1, the wood frame structure was built circa 1919 to educate black students in the community. Rev. Leon Ernest Coleman, for whom the museum is named, was a native of Brunswick County and a graduate of Lynchburg Seminary in 1924. Aside from being a vigorous leader of the local clergy — New Shiloh Baptist Church, a brick church in Nathalie, was built under Coleman’s leadership — Coleman was teacher at Mountain Road School No. 1. One of the museum’s photographs shows him and a graduating class at Mountain Road School No. 1 posing at the steps of the school.

Exhibits at the old schoolhouse are arranged to showcase various facets of local African-American history. After guests pass through the front entrance — newly upgraded for handicapped accessibility — they will come upon the schoolhouse’s original two front doors. Inside are the exhibits, media room and a carefully recreated classroom and quilt room.

“It’s a view back in history,” said Linda Miller, the museum’s curator.

Miller grew up in Meadville and graduated from Halifax County Senior High School in 1975. Lewis, the assistant museum curator, is also a county native, having grown up in Republican Grove. She graduated from Mary Bethune High School in 1968.

An emphasis of the L.E. Coleman Museum is Halifax County’s place in the struggle for African American advancement in America. Two of the notable figures memorialized with photo displays are Cora L. Tucker, the fiery late civil rights activist who tangled with Halifax County’s white leadership from the 1970s to 1990s on matters of racial equity; and Henrietta Lacks, the sharecropper girl who grew up in Clover, moved to Baltimore, and became a figure of worldwide renown when her cells were harvested after her death from cancer.

Those cells, taken without the knowledge or consent of the Lacks family, gave rise to the self-replicating HeLa cell line, which has been used in groundbreaking medical research ever since Henrietta Lacks’ death. Her story became known to the world with publication of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the best-selling book by science writer Rebecca Skloot. The story was later adapted as an HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey.

Other photos convey the images of men and women whose names have been lost to time. Photographs hang on the walls of African-American veterans from the Civil War, World War I and World War II, among others.

As guests walk room to room through the museum, they will reach the replica classroom, with old school desks and walls adorned with pictures of the school’s graduating classes. The kitchen has a wood cooking stove and antique utensils, washtubs, scrub boards and more.

The quilting room showcases brightly-patterned quilts and an old sewing machines with a foot pedal, used to move the sewing needle up and down. A metal quilt sweeper hangs on the wall; it was used to beat dust out of the quilts when they were hung outside on the clothesline.

The tool room contains horse tackle, a tobacco drying stand, and slave chains with the long metal staple used to hold the chain in place in the ground.

The mission at the L. E. Coleman Museum is inspired by the words of Dr. George Washington Carver: “No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.”

The L.E. Coleman African-American Museum is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. It is also open the second and fourth Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The museum is located at 3011 Mountain Road, near the Friendly Corner Market. Call (434) 476-5000 for further information.

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