CHRISTIANSBURG — The historic school that for a century was the only place black students in Southwest Virginia could be educated might be poised for a renaissance.
For the past few years, work that began in the 1990s to preserve and pass on the history of Christiansburg Industrial Institute has moved along mostly out of sight. But now the nonprofit Christiansburg Institute Inc. has new staff and renewed energy to preserve the only surviving structure from the former 185-acre campus.
Chris Sanchez, 28, has been named part-time project organizer for Christiansburg Institute Inc., the 17-year-old nonprofit that works to promote and preserve the history of the school that operated from 1866 to 1966.
Sanchez said his most urgent task is raising funds to repair the roof of the Edgar A. Long building, a large, two-story brick classroom building constructed in 1927 and named for the school’s African-American principal from 1906-24.
Sanchez will also “work with contractors, engineers, committee members in imagining what that building could be, programmatically — and also, practically, how we secure the funds to actually accomplish that,” he said.
Estimates for repair of the roof range from $150,000 for modern asphalt shingles to $290,000 to restore its original slate tiles, Sanchez said.
The rest of the building is in good structural shape, he added. But it needs extensive restoration and modernization, a task complicated by its placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Original or equivalent materials must be used in any remodeling, which can add significantly to the cost. In some cases, historic tax credits can offset the costs. Full restoration is expected to cost several million dollars.
The Long building and about four acres of the original campus are listed in town property records as belonging to the Christiansburg Institute Alumni Association, and are valued for tax purposes at $451,700.The alumni group is separate from, but works with, Christiansburg Institute Inc.
Sanchez said another urgent task is the inventory and archiving of a large collection of school artifacts and the reopening of a small museum in the institute’s reconstructed smokehouse.
The museum is “not open to the public at present. I think it needs to be,” Sanchez said. The idea is to “tell a consistent story and then get that open to the public with regular scheduled hours.”
The Long building has sat empty for decades, despite long-running efforts and past federal financial support to restore and open it to the public.
In 2000, then-U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher announced a $300,000 federal grant to help restore the exterior of the Long building. In 2006, Boucher announced another $1.6 million in low-interest federal loans approved to boost a $6 million plan to create a vocational training center and museum on the site. A sign detailing that plan still stands on the property, but the work was not completed.
Support remains for the project. Over the past eight years, the Christiansburg Town Council has made annual grants to the Christiansburg Institute Inc., allocating $80,000 in total, according to town spokeswoman Melissa Demmitt.
Still, the organization has struggled. According to 2015 tax filings, it had revenues of $29,426 and $33,841 in expenses, leaving a $4,415 deficit that year.
The Christiansburg Institute was founded in 1866 by Charles Schaeffer, a Union Army veteran sent to Christiansburg by the federal Freedmen’s Bureau to educate former slaves freed after the Civil War. He began with 12 students in a rented room and then built a school in 1866 on what is today High Street. The Hill School remained a primary school until 1953, when the county built a new segregated elementary school for black children. In 1963, the community worked to reopen the Hill School as the Christiansburg Community Center. It’s currently closed for renovations.
In 1895, Booker T. Washington became superintendent of the Christiansburg Industrial Institute and directed it from his premiere African-American college, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. Washington, who was born a slave in Franklin County, oversaw the expansion of the Christiansburg Institute into a large campus with more than a dozen buildings – a dormitory, administration offices, smokehouse, wood shop and classrooms and laboratories. Annual enrollment was nearly 400 students, who came from across Southwest Virginia and as far east as Richmond. They received classical instruction and were trained in a number of trades.
By 1966, the year it closed, Christiansburg Institute was the segregated public high school for blacks. When it was idled, the county sold the property to private interests and most of its buildings were demolished. In the 1980s, Christiansburg Vice Mayor Jack Via deeded land and the remaining structures, including the Long building, to the alumni association.
Sanchez said he wants more alumni to get involved with the institute’s future. The history of CI is one of self-determination and success, and needs to be celebrated, he said. It’s not just a local story, either.
“The history of CI, it transcends just the New River Valley. I mean, we’re talking about educational philosophies of Booker T. Washington at that time. And if you’re talking about that,” Sanchez said, “you’re talking about W.E.B. Du Bois,” Washington’s rival, who advocated civil rights advocacy and political action to help African-Americans.
Washington, meanwhile, preached self-improvement and accommodation of segregation in the short-term as the best way forward.
“So this conversation that CI became a part of became a sort of middle ground between those two philosophies and extends beyond even the state of Virginia,” Sanchez said. “If we can really hone in, what is the story of CI, I think we can bring that to a national audience.”
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