Christiansburg Institute uses its past to shape its future

Black History Month

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — It hasn’t held a class in over 50 years, but the Christiansburg Institute (C.I.) in Montgomery County continues to educate.

Charles Schaeffer (Photo: Courtesy Town of Christiansburg)

“We are a nonprofit with a mission of education and empowerment,” said C.I.’s Executive Director Chris Sanchez.

Sanchez has been in his role since 2017, overseeing preservation and excavation efforts to ensure the legacy of the school.

C.I. was started in 1866, just after the Civil War, by Captain Charles S. Schaeffer, a former Union Soldier who at that time was serving under the Freedmen’s Bureau.

“His work focused on land and food access, shelter,” Sanchez said. “It began to become absorbed into education.”

Only a few years down the road, the Freedmen’s Bureau was dissolved, and federal funding for the school was no longer a revenue stream.

C.I. would soon acquire the interest of the Friends’ Freedmen’s Association, a group of Quakers from Pennsylvania.

From there, the school would be taken under the supervision of Booker T. Washington in 1895, who was already busy serving at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

“His top graduates in 1895, he began to gradually send to Montgomery County to Christiansburg, to grow the school to be a replica to the educational philosophy of Tuskegee and the Tuskegee idea.”

At its height, C.I.’s campus was two-hundred acres and possibly 25 different facilities.

We say possibly because the exact number is unknown.

Sanchez says he is working with an architect at Virginia Tech to see if there are any unknown structural remnants that could be linked to C.I.

Eventually, the campus would be deeded to Montgomery and Pulaski County and Radford City school systems in 1947, and during the Civil Rights Movement, C.I. closed its doors in 1966.

“That nearly 200-acre campus was then divided in sixteen lots. It was sold at public auction. Fifteen of those sites were purchased by a private developer. Today, we see that development beginning by Dairy Queen all the way down to the rec. center,” Sanchez said. “Waffle House, Food Lion, all of that was formally C.I.’s property. The 16th site, the Montgomery County Public School Board purchases it and builds Christiansburg High School.”

“It was just so sad,” said Debbie Sherman-Lee. “It breaks my heart to even think of it today. They weren’t trying to save it for other uses because we could’ve used those buildings.”

Sherman-Lee looks for her sister in the C.I. graduation composite for 1963

Sherman-Lee went to C.I. in 1965-66 as an eighth grader, the school being grades eight through 12.

After the school was closed and auctioned off, she went to Christiansburg High School for the remainder of secondary school.

“My sister was blessed in that she was able to go through and graduate (C.I.) in the class of ’63,” Sherman-Lee said, describing her family history tied to C.I.

Today, one of the last remaining buildings from C.I. is the Edgar Long building, located on Scattergood Drive in Christiansburg.

C.I., the now non-profit, oversees a group called Christiansburg Institute Inc., a volunteer organization whose goal is to raise funds to renovate the Long Building.

Sherman-Lee happens to be Chairwoman of C.I.I., and her board members include descendants of C.I. graduates, who have stepped in to carry on their ancestors’ legacies.

The current Edgar Long Building in Christiansburg

“I heard stories about how my great-grandfather was actually on the track team and the football team at C.I.,” said Christine King, one of C.I.I.’s board members. “Actually seeing those pictures that we have in our museums and seeing their names, it just kind of puts me in their shoes.”

The Long Building recently had it’s roof replaced, and renderings for renovations have been drawn.

“I feel like my great-grandmother would be extremely happy if she was here today to see the work that is being done,” King said.

The idea is for it to serve two purposes: as a gathering place or conference center for various groups in the community and also as a museum to educate those who enter about the building they’re standing in.

“There’s a lot of people that have been waiting a long time,” Sherman-Lee said. “And so, we’re hoping that it will come to fruition in the near future.”

“The magic and the power of C.I. is the story,” Sanchez said. “There is some real, sheer, ancestral power that is just demanding to be understood and to be heard.”

Sanchez says there is still a lot to learn about C.I. and that ‘uncovering these treasures,’ as he puts it, is one of the greatest honors of his life.

It’s efforts from all three of these C.I. leaders that will ensure the school will serve the community for generations to come as both a reminder of all those who attended and a conducive space for those still eager to learn.

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