By Nalia Higgins
When I heard that I would be going to Christiansburg and Blacksburg for Springhouse’s winter all school trip I had no idea how much I would learn. I learned a lot about the overlooked history of black people in the region I have spent my whole life living nearby. Before the trip we had already been learning about the Christiansburg Institute (C.I.), which is an organization working to share the history of an all black school that lasted for one hundred years, from 1867 to 1967. It closed when segregation ended. because the school was no longer funded enough to keep going. The C. I. was a school that focused on farming, building and learning other skills that would help students once they graduated get good jobs. People would come to it from all over the state. Many people would arrive on a train and stay at C.I. because they lived far away. C.I. served a very important purpose and educated numerous people.
It was Monday when our trip started. We drove to Blacksburg which only took about 35 minutes. When we reached the Unitarian church that we would be staying in, it was cold outside and snow was flurrying. After we settled in, the first thing we did was drive to Cristiansburg and go to The Edgar A. Long building. I had no idea what to expect the Edgar A. Long building to be like. I was not clear on the fact that The Edgar A. Long building is the last standing building from the Christiansburg Institute (C.I.). In fact, after the school had ended, people tried to tear down the building with a wrecking ball and failed because it was built so strong. When we reached the C.I. property we were greeted by Chris, Dan, Andrae and Ms. Debbie who is a C.I. alumna, though she never got to graduate because C.I. closed before she got the chance. Everyone there who greeted us works at C.I. They gave us a tour of their garden and raised beds. Being winter, nothing was currently growing in them. They have raised beds because the ground’s soil is not very fertile and raised beds are more accessible for everyone. Although they do plan to grow plants from the ground, Chris made it clear that they were making sure that everything they did would be accessible for everyone. One of the many reasons why this is so important is that the alumni of C.I. are older and need to be able to access the remaining history of the school.
After seeing the garden we walked around what used to be a small portion of the schools’ campus. Unfortunately, only about sixteen percent of the original campus’s 188 acres belong to C.I. The rest of the land is now divided to other businesses and Christiansburg High School. in the town of Christiansburg. As we walked around the campus we stood in places that other buildings of the school used to stand. We also walked to the place where people are uncaringly and wrongly using it as a dump. We stood in the place where Booker T. Washington gave an important speech. This place was not at all acknowledged. It was only part of the lawn. Chris said something like, “how we treat the land shows how we treat history. If Thomas Jefferson had given speech here it would be very much remembered in history.’’ All of this made me feel very frustrated by how the campus is now. And I was also very inspired by what I had learned.
We then walked inside the Edgar A. Long building. Inside had a lot of potential but was very run down. It had no electricity, needed some repair for it to be fully restored, and was not heated so it was very cold. The building was very tall with many stories including an attic which had the steepest stairs leading up to it that I had ever seen. Most of the windows were boarded up with plywood. But the few windows that were left or where sunlight peeped through let bright light stream through them. This helped show how beautiful the building once was and what it can be. One of the many remarkable things about the building was that it had been partly built by the students of C.I. The building was mostly built of bricks.
Before I walked into the building I had not expected to find myself sometimes smiling, but I did. As Dan put it, “remember the good parts.” Even though this building is now very run down, a lot of amazing things have happened there in the past. One thing that struck me and did not make me smile is that there is a public school (Christiansburg High School) which is built on what was once C.I’s campus. Most everyone at the public school has no idea about C. I.
The Edgar A. Long building has been somewhat repaired; it has a new roof which is the same as how it used to be, and now the basement no longer floods. Also, the Edgar A. Long building is listed on the National Registry of Historical Sites so any repair has to be as close to how it used to be as possible. Unfortunately, the Christiansburg Institute (C.I.) is not getting anywhere near the amount of funding they need to repair the building. But once the building is fixed up they will preserve and acknowledge the history even more, and it will be C.I’s. office and a place to have gatherings. For me, after being on the remaining campus of C.I., I was left unhappy with how important history is being treated but also filled with hope on what the remaining part of the campus and building will become.
Seeing the Edgar A. Long building was one of the main things that impacted me the most on our trip. Two other things are: going to C.I.s’ temporary office until the Edgar Long building is fixed up. In the downstairs there is a very small museum of historical artifacts from C.I. One thing that stood out to me was a painting of C.I. when it was in its full glory. There was the Edgar A. Long building standing in between the girls dormitory and the boys dormitory. There was also a hospital. The hospital was built for a dire reason because one of the leaders of C.I. tragically died because the closest hospital that accepted black people was in Roanoke and he could not get to it in time. Unfortunately, the crucial hospital burned down not long after it was built.
The second thing that impacted me on our trip was visiting a building that used to be a church but is now a fish taco restaurant.The original part of the building was built by enslaved people.This was a slap in the face for me. I had thought that a building in Blacksburg that had been built by enslaved people would surely at least be acknowledged as history. Not utterly ignored besides one sign inside the building that gave no context; nobody could tell just by reading the sign that part of the building had been built by enslaved people. It also makes me wonder how many other buildings were built by enslaved people and are not acknowledged.
Our trip was very impactful for me. I learned a lot about important history, mostly about the area I have lived near for my whole life. I also got to go to many important historical places. Overall, our trip was very important, eye opening, and full of learning which was often about very painful topics but was also full of hope for change.
I am so happy that Nalia, and her school, have taken this opportunity to visit a place in their community that they knew nothing about before hand. Hopefully Springhouse can help in the revitalization of C.I. with black and white children; and black and white adults of the community, sharing gardening and other skills each may know.Thanks, Nalia, for the insights you have shared from your own experiences .