The small town of Wytheville is known as the birthplace of First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson, for a serious polio outbreak in 1950s and for its week-long Chautauqua arts festival held each June for the last 30 years. But the town also has a rich African-American history which a group of residents are trying to preserve. Catherine Komp reports for Virginia Currents.
Learn more: Wytheville Training School Cultural Center's website includes more photos and a historical timeline; and learn about Wytheville history and other museums, including a permanent exhibit on the 1950s Polio outbreak.
John Johnson: See this white picket fence . . .
Historian John Johnson surveys the neighborhood on 5th and Franklin, just a few blocks off Wytheville’s Main Street.
Johnson: Every property had a white picket, even the church had a white picket fence, 1880s, 1890s . . .
Johnson stands on the long porch of a bright white clapboard building lined with dark green trim. Three decades ago, he’d pass by and watch the paint eroding, the siding popping off and the roof rusting.
Johnson: At the time, it was pretty much a shack.
Johnson: >When I saw this building, I saw a piece of African-American legacy just fall to the ground.
Richard Henry Scott was the school’s first teacher. He moved here from Richmond in 1876 at the age of 19, traveling to areas that lacked educators by horse and buggy and staying overnight with students’ families.
Johnson has done extensive research on the Wytheville Training School, putting together many pieces after discovering a trunk full of Richard Scott’s documents in a house down the street. But he also knows the history through experience: he started first grade here in 1944.
Johnson: And I attended the school until 1952, when there was a new African-American school built not too far from here ‘cause this school was closed down.
The building is small, just four rooms for about 100 students of different grade levels. Folding doors dividing the space could be rolled back when there was a performance on the built-in stage or a social gathering in the evening. Johnson’s sister, Louise Crockett, was a 1948 graduate.
Louise Crockett: When you came to school in the morning, the first thing you did was Pledge Allegiance to the Flag, then you sang America the Beautiful and then we always sang the National Negro Anthem, we learned that. We learned about Booker T. Washington and you always learned about George Washington Carver, you learned those. So we got a little Black history way back then, we got Black history.
Crockett: We’d always have our proms here at school, we always had our proms and people would come and volunteer and the chaperones. And then we had a lot of socials. At the end of year, they would have a school closing and I remember it so vividly how we had to dress up in crepe paper, they made a little costume out of crepe paper and we’d be on the stage here, and each year we had the school closing.
After the school was closed and sold, the building housed commercial businesses and some were concerned a future owner might raze the structure. After years of rallying support, Johnson and other community members finally succeeded in purchasing the property and formed the Wytheville Training School and Cultural Center in 2001. The non-profit is run by a small group of volunteers, one part-time staff member and a $30,000 annual budget.
Margaret Lee is president of the organization’s board of directors.
Lee: To me, it’s really special that we can still contribute to the community, that we can offer services and be a part of the community and keep the building viable, useful.
Wytheville Training School Cultural Center now offers tutoring, adult literacy and computer classes, as well as a small museum and children’s library. They also work with community groups to hold health screenings and an annual flu clinic. Those involved would like to see the organization grow. But many Wytheville Training School alumni have moved away or died; Johnson estimates only about 75 to 80 are still living.
Johnson: Well I would hope for the future, because it is historically an African-American building but I would hope for the future that more African-Americans could be involved with what goes on here.
The organization would also like to continue the tradition of using the building for non-educational activities, like socials and weddings and hope the Wytheville Training School Cultural Center becomes a regular stop for people exploring the region’s history. Catherine Komp, WCVE News, Wytheville.