As often happens while looking for something in Special Collections and University Archives’ Historical Photographs Collection, I recently ran across an unexpected item that caught my interest. In this case, it was a school photo that I’d never seen. Captioned “Calfee Graded School, Pulaski, Va., 1917,” the photo features students and teachers of Pulaski County’s segregated school for African-American children. The caption identifies the principal of the school, more formally known as Pulaski Training School, as M. E. W. Buford.
I was unable to find much information on the school’s early history, unfortunately. Conway Howard Smith’s The Land That Is Pulaski County (1981) tells us that the two-story, brick school was built on the west side of Main Street in 1894. A 1921 education report records that year’s enrollment of the school as 276 students.
By the 1930s, the 40-year-old Calfee Training School had fallen into a state of disrepair, and leaders in the African-American community were pushing for an accredited replacement. Local physician Percy C. Corbin and others called for a school that would be of equal quality to that of its counterparts for local white students.
The need for a new school became more urgent in 1938, when the school pictured above was destroyed by fire. Ultimately, the school board funded a new elementary school, to be located across the street from the original location. The new facility, featuring eight classrooms, was completed the following year at a cost of approximately $35,000.
Rather than investing in a new facility for students of high school age, however, the board chose to bus the county’s older Black students to Christiansburg Industrial Institute in neighboring Montgomery County. (At the time, Pulaski County was served by three high schools for white students.) Because the bus ride of approximately 30 miles was so time-consuming, it deprived the transported students from participating in after-school activities, limited their study time at home, and created untold additional problems. The unsatisfactory arrangement ultimately led to a 1947 lawsuit, Corbin et al., v County School Board of Pulaski County, Virginia, which became part of a larger collection of local class-action lawsuits initiated by the NAACP Legal Defense fund to equalize the education of the races. According to the National Archives website, the Pulaski County suit ended in a victory for the plaintiffs on appeal in Baltimore’s U. S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1949. A hollow victory, however, the case’s conclusion apparently brought little change in practice, and it became the last in the NAACP’s efforts toward equalization, as civil rights activists soon began to instead focus their energies on the goal of school desegregation.
The Pulaski County school system finally became integrated in 1966, and the Calfee School closed. Through the succeeding decades, the school building has served several different purposes and has gradually fallen into disrepair.
Today, the Calfee Training School—the school built in 1939—is again in the news, as efforts are underway to restore the building and give it a new purpose. If existing plans are realized, the new Calfee Community & Cultural Center will include a museum, a childcare center, a community kitchen, and office space for non-profits, all while preserving a significant piece of local history.