Southside Virginia Black high school remains a beacon of education
by Audrey T. Hingley, Contributing Writer
Pittsylvania County’s Northside High School, one of Southside Virginia’s first Black high schools, began in 1903 during the days of segregation. It remained active until 1969, when area schools were eventually integrated. Today, the school’s rich history has evolved into a museum that still educates, telling the story of Black education in Pittsylvania County and beyond.
“We want to enlighten people and preserve history about local Black education prior to integration,” says Northside alumnus Silas Musgrove, a retired educator, school guidance counselor and coach.
Along with fellow alumna Matilda Berger Turner, the two created the Northside High School Museum as a nonprofit organization in 2005 and dedicated it in 2006. Musgrove, president of the museum committee, and Berger, vice president, secured three grants from the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Commission to develop the museum that today chronicles the history of Black education that thrived here.
The story the museum tells is one of determination, perseverance and of family.
Pittsylvania County’s countryside features lush rural vistas, intersected by lakes, fields and ponds and filled with small communities with names like Hurt and Motley. Chatham, the county seat for Pittsylvania since 1777, is today home to Hargrave Military Academy and Chatham Hall, an all-female boarding school.
Close to modern regional attractions like nearby Smith Mountain Lake, the Southside Virginia county (pop: 59,952) is the commonwealth’s largest county by total land area (969 square miles, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).
Formed in 1767 with land annexed from Halifax County, the early local economy was tobacco-dominated. By the 1840s the county was producing in excess of 6 billion pounds of tobacco annually, more than any other Virginia locality.
The area’s natural beauty stands in contrast to its relatively unspoken history: In pre-Civil War days, Pittsylvania tobacco farmers were increasingly reliant on enslaved labor. In the reconstruction era that followed the war, Virginia public schools were racially segregated.
“It was illegal to teach Blacks under slavery,” Musgrove says. “After the Civil War, around 1870, the idea was born that educating Blacks would make them profitable citizens. The first Black elementary schools built were built by private people, not the county. A teacher would generally live in the private home of a prominent Black person in the area, and local citizens paid their salary.”
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
Musgrove says the genesis of Northside High School was the Pittsylvania Industrial Academy, started by the Cherrystone Baptist Association and local Black citizens in March 1903 in Elba (now Gretna) with 28 pupils.
Prior to this, Blacks could only advance to the seventh grade, he says. The school’s second building was a two-room lodge hall initially used in the summer of 1903, while the community raised money and built a new school that opened that fall. The new high school, Pittsylvania Industrial and Collegiate, was a private school where students lived on-site as boarders. The Rev. Frank Greene, the first Black bus driver in Pittsylvania, picked up non-boarding students in the Riceville-Java area and transported them to the high school in Gretna for a small fee paid for by students’ parents.
Musgrove says the school underwent remodeling. An annex was added in the 1920s and by the mid-1930s the name had changed to Pittsylvania Training School.
“Back in the day, Black families’ priority was working to make a living and many were sharecroppers,” he explains. “Parents sent the kids to [elementary] school, but when [the children] were older and could do more work, they went to work on the farm. My parents only went to the fourth and fifth grade; but most [Blacks] in my generation are high school graduates.”
In 1934 the boarding school ceased operation due to a lack of paying students amid Great Depression hardships, and by 1937, Musgrove says the property was sold to satisfy debts.
A new school for Blacks, the first Black high school built with county public funds, was open by 1938; and by 1948, it was named Northside High School.
In 1951 the building burned, and a new school was completed in 1952, with additions made in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1949, a second Black high school in the county, Southside High School in Blairs, opened.
Like Northside, Southside was closed at the end of the 1969 school term when integration/school consolidation came to Pittsylvania. The building has since been turned into apartments.
AN ELEMENTARY CONCEPT
Musgrove, one of nine siblings and the son of sharecroppers, lives in Java with his wife, Muzelle, but says that as a child, “I lived in the Sandy Level area where they had Ajax Colored School [a one-room schoolhouse], later known as Ajax Elementary School, where my dad went to school in 1928.”
Musgrove also attended Ajax Elementary. Heated by a woodstove in winter, Musgrove recalls, “We had a ‘trusty’ student who would carry the key, open up the school, and build a fire in the winter so the building would be warm when the teacher got there. Because we had to work, sometimes we got to school late. We had grades one through seven in one room, and usually a sixth or seventh grader ‘carried the key.’ They stopped using the school in the 1940s.”
Based on research he and Turner have done, Musgrove estimates there were about 72 Black elementary schools in Pittsylvania from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Turner, who moved to New York shortly after her Northside graduation and began her career with the utility ConEd, currently lives in Danville. Now widowed, she recalls, “Mom and Dad encouraged me to do what they didn’t do — to get an education. Now I encourage my nieces and nephews [regarding] education.”
Northside held its first reunion in 1983. In 1990, a conversation between Turner and Ella Mae Monroe led to an August 1990 reunion; and annual reunions have been held ever since. Turner is alumni committee president.
Following Northside’s closure in 1969, Black and white students attended Gretna High School. Northside’s old buildings were repurposed for public and private use.
In 2006 the school itself was demolished, but some buildings, like the one housing the principal’s office and gym, remain. At the time a former student said it felt like “everything was taken from us.”
Musgrove, Turner and Silas Moore began talks with the county and wound up with a 0.69-acre land deed allowing alumni association members to design and build an impressive brick memorial marker installed at the school’s site, just in time for the annual 2006 reunion.
Groundbreaking for Java’s Corner Road Baptist Church was in 2004; by 2005 Musgrove and Turner had chartered the museum as nonprofit and the church donated 1,500 square feet of basement space for the museum’s permanent home.
Open by appointment, the museum today is frequently updated with new photos and materials donated by the school’s surviving alumni. School trophies, vintage lockers and desks, and photos of tobacco crops and early Black schools help tell the story of Black education in Pittsylvania.
Remaining alumni praise Northside teachers and say they received a good education at the school; one alumnus recalls the principal telling students, “Dance with the girls like they are your mother!” When asked why they became successful post-high school despite a segregated educational past, the alumni verdict was unanimous: “family.”
Persons interviewed for this article cited the encouragement of “Mom and Dad” as the reason for their adult successes.
Regarding the museum, Turner says, “I would like people to see what our ancestors went through … this is why history and education are so important.”
For more information or to schedule a museum tour, call (434) 425-2321 or (434) 835-0245. The museum is located at Corner Road Baptist Church, 752 Corner Road in Java, Va.