One-room school to be museum in Newport News

Christian Home operated as an elementary school for blacks to late 1940s

October 06, 2002|By Patrick Lynch | Patrick Lynch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. - Celestine Savage ponders for a moment why some people want to forget their childhoods and some people want to remember them.

Savage wants to remember her school days walking miles to her schoolhouse, a small wooden building with a musty smell, a pot-bellied stove and secondhand books.

For people like Savage, who attended Isle of Wight's segregated, one- and two-room schoolhouses in the first half of the 20th century, memories came flooding back recently, when Smithfield officials said they wanted to make a museum out of the old Christian Home school building.

"I was poor, but everybody was poor," Savage said. "We just didn't know it. I guess they don't want to think about the hardship."

Savage and others have been doing just that recently thinking about the hardship. Sometimes they laugh about it; sometimes they show a hint of pride at having lived through it.

Early education

The ramshackle Christian Home school now stands off Longview Drive near Chuckatuck, but it will be moved eventually to a site off Main Street. The museum will focus on early education in Isle of Wight and, in particular, on black education. The idea to use the schoolhouse for the museum put the experiences of those days back to front and center for the folks who lived them.

Christian Home operated as an elementary school for blacks from the early 1920s to the late 1940s. Days often began with a long hike. Some recall walking five miles from home to the school door. Some kept to the dusty roads; others beat a path through woods and swamp.

For years, those walks included getting passed by a school bus with white students aboard. The Isle of Wight School Board started busing white children before 1920, but black children had to wait until almost 1940. One Christian Home student remembers being the target of paper wads as the bus passed by. Others said they were quite aware of the inequality but didn't remember much vocal protest until years later.

"All I knew was that they rode buses, and we walked," said Jessie Pittman, 69, who went to Christian Home. "That was just the way we traveled."

The teacher there was often only one for all students rang a cowbell at 9 in the morning that told the kids it was time to gather. Each day started with a devotion outside.

Discipline was strict, and respect for the teacher followed. Of course, that might have come from one of several things, depending on the teacher's choice of disciplinary tool: ruler, switch or wooden paddle.

The schoolhouses were relatively bare, compared with the explosion of color in today's classrooms. Christian Home students remember only blackboards and maps on the walls, with the alphabet printed across the top of the blackboard. The lessons stuck to reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, history and geography. Science was not yet a subject.

A stove kept the schoolhouse warm, and it was the pupils' responsibility to gather wood and get a fire going on winter mornings. For lunch, sometimes, the teacher would put on a large pot of navy beans or grits and occasionally would bring a crate of apples. On drier days, the students would spread grease or oil on the wood-plank floor to keep the dust down.

Museum mission

It's a mission of the newly formed museum committee to record this type of history. That hasn't been done in detail yet.

Sandra Lowe, whose father, Elgin Lowe, was a longtime teacher in Isle of Wight's black schools, is taking charge of a project to gather oral history on the schools.

"We'll lose it," Lowe said, "if we don't get a record of it."

Lowe essentially is starting from scratch.

Like a historical castoff, the Christian Home schoolhouse gets hardly a mention in the 600 pages of Isle of Wight's most comprehensive history book.

"Christian Home, a small twenty by twenty foot, ill-ventilated and badly lighted building," it reads on page 273 of "Historical Notes on Isle of Wight County, Virginia."

How times have changed.

"Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful," said Lilly Wilson, 72, about the plans to make a museum of the schoolhouse. Wilson attended Christian Home in the 1930s. "I'm so proud. My daughter and I, we're supposed to ride down there tomorrow and see it. It's been so long since I've seen it."

Patrick Lynch is a reporter for The Daily Press, a Tribune Publishing newspaper in Newport News, Va.

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