Community members work to repair and preserve Black Appalachian history with new museum
The opening of the Christiansburg Institute Museum marks the beginning of a community's journey to repair the broken perspective of Black history in Virginia Appalachia.
“I think of a museum as a living, breathing playground of memories and stories to really make sure those memories and stories are being shared broadly in spaces where they are typically not visible,” said Chris Sanchez, executive director of the Christiansburg Institute.
Sanchez once gave a local Christiansburg teen a tour of the Edgar A. Long building, the only building that remains of a once bustling high school dedicated to educating African Americans throughout the country, a school also known as Christiansburg Institute.
“He walked through the building and was like ‘Yo, I went to grade school in this school system and had no idea C.I. existed’” Sanchez said. It’s a story that demonstrates how easily the past can be erased, Sanchez says.
It’s also a story that demonstrates the community’s mission to preserve the history of the Christiansburg Institute, so it won’t be forgotten.
Christiansburg Institute’s story begins in 1866 within a rented room of a log cabin owned by an African American freed before emancipation, Nancy Freedman. Capt. Charles S. Schaeffer, an agent of the Freedmen's Bureau, worked together with local African Americans to create this first iteration of the Christiansburg Institute.
Over time the rented room expanded into a 14-building campus with farm land. School leaders such as Charles Marshall, Edgar A. Long and Booker T. Washington played instrumental roles in making C.I. a premiere center of education for African Americans, attracting hundreds of students each year to the school.
“It was a school where if you wanted to learn, you could learn,” C.I. alum William “June” Smith said. “There were good teachers, and the only reason you didn’t learn anything from C.I. is that you didn’t want to learn anything.”
Washington modeled the institute’s curriculum after his school, Tuskegee. In addition to traditional subjects, practical skills were integrated into the school’s curriculum: farming, engineering, workshop and barbering among others. Respect for students was also integrated into the curriculum.
“We had teachers that took time to work with you, help you out and to let you know that you are very important, to let you know that you were treated as a Mr. or a Ms.,” Eulalia Johnston Mills, a C.I. graduate, said. “They filled in all the blanks, so we can get a hold on life. ”
Through the institute’s 100-year history, it acted as a breeding ground for friendships and connections that bonded the Black community in Appalachian Virginia. Despite the fact that C.I. closed in 1966, when local schools were integrated, this bond remains strong.
The school’s physical existence was effectively erased when the 14-building lot was destroyed and the land auctioned to local white developers. But the bonds it created led to the vision and effort to preserve Christiansburg Black history, going back to 1999 when a group of Christiansburg Institute alumni bought the land back.
“Christiansburg Institute Museum is 100% a people’s grassroot effort,” said Jenny Nehrt, Christiansburg Institute Museum curator.
One of their most sizable projects was replacing the roof of the Edgar Long Building. Funding from the towns of Christiansburg and Blacksburg as well as organizations such as 100+ Women Who Care NRV made up around $180,000 out of the $200,000 needed for the roof. The rest of the money was made out of $10 to $25 donations from individuals in the community.
When you walk inside the Christiansburg museum every artifact, pictures, marching band uniforms, old textbooks, even the physical space the museum inhabits and the display cases, were donated by community members. The museum itself only has two full-time employees, Sanchez and Nehrt. The rest of the labor comes from volunteers.
“The telling of history is extremely powerful. You wield tremendous power when you are able to curate a narrative,” Sanchez said. “ We want to redirect that power back to the community of those who are most directly affected by the history, who lived the history.”
Although building a museum from the ground up can be an empowering experience, it’s a strenuous journey when you don’t have access to the resources desperately needed: climate-controlled rooms, the space to display the items and time.
“As alumni pass, so does the ability to preserve the story,” Sanchez said. “When you don’t have a younger generation to carry on that mantle, these stories get put in boxes, storage units and administrative buildings where you would never think carries C.I. 's story.”
After C.I. alumni started dying, there were around two decades where its history was collecting dust in storage. In 2017, when Nehrt and Sanchez were brought on to the C.I. project, they spent hours sitting on the floor, dissecting and writing notes about the artifacts. This process brought to light how much Black history is undervalued.
“We know if Thomas Jefferson lived anywhere in Christiansburg, there would be massive monuments and millions and millions of dollars that goes into interpreting, preserving and curating some super cool memorial site,” Sanchez said. “We don’t see that for our leaders in the Black community who gave their lives to the empowerment of Black people who also deserve that significant recognition.”
Even though the current museum space is temporary, there is pride among the Christiansburg alumni that their story is finally being memorialized for everyone to see.
“[It’s a] heartfelt feeling,'' Johnston Mills said. “You're seeing a part of your history. You’re able to touch a part of your history. When you love Christiansburg Institute, you had an education that would be your lifeline. Hopefully and prayerfully this will be something our youth can pick up on by looking at what we transition into and that will help them transition in their further education.”
However, the alumni, Sanchez and Nehrt fully recognize this is only the beginning of their ultimate dream for the museum.
“[The ultimate goal is] to renovate the Edgar Long building and to develop our museum there,” Nehrt said. It’s a sentiment shared by the entire community. Although accomplished, the roof to the Edgar Long building was the first of a long series of things that needed renovations.
“No, we’re not satisfied,” Sanchez said. “Yes, the museum is here now. Yes, we will get into a restored Edgar A. Long building to properly showcase all of the artifacts. That’s part of the work, but there’s also the relationship and historical trauma that needs to be reconciled and needs to be acknowledged and that happens. It's not going to be a fixed point.”
The museum fully opens to the public in October. To donate or learn more about the Christiansburg Institute Museum go to https://www.christiansburginstitute.com/.
Christiansburg Institute also recently released the second edition of the book, "A Vision of Education: Selected Writings of Edgar A. Long." This book details the principal’s life and involvement with the institute; It includes his writings, updated photographs and a letter from Edgar and Anna Long’s grandson.