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Mary Bethune complex: Integration of history

If only the walls of the historic Mary Bethune office complex could talk, oh the stories they could tell.

The building has stood on Cowford Road in Halifax for over a century having served as various schools for black children, an integrated junior high school and now as the home of the Halifax County School Board, Halifax County Health Department, Halifax County Social Services, Halifax County Registrar’s Office and the local chapter of the American Red Cross.

For the majority of its lifetime, the building served as a place for black children to gain an education until schools were integrated in 1969.

According to an excerpt from the book “The History of the Education of Black Citizens In Halifax County” written by W. C. Edwards, Preston M. Royster and Lazarus Bates and published by Banister Press, the Mary Bethune building began as the Halifax Normal Institute. Built in 1872, it was operated by the Banister Baptist Association.

The school opened in 1897 and served as a school for blacks.  The school would remain open until 1920, the book stated.  The highest grade was nine, and the school year was six months long. 

Graduates of the school furthered their education elsewhere and became teachers, nurses, ministers and social workers.

According to an excerpt from the book, Ms. N. E. Jennings and Pamela Foy Jackson are two known graduates of the school.

In 1920 the Banister Baptist Association sold the facilities to the Halifax County School Board to be used as a school for black children.

The Halifax Training School opened in the early 1920s, and in its early years it was largely a boarding school. The school served grades 8 through 11.  

In the 1920s, the school year was five months long starting in October, and teachers’ salaries were $25.30 per month.

In 1948 the school merged with Booker T. Washington High School in South Boston.

Waynesboro Wyatt, Elizabeth Palmer and Eva Womack were all graduates of Halifax Training School. 

“I just enjoyed going. It was a new experience, and you could learn something, and I was interested in what I could learn to help me along the way,” Palmer, a 1942 graduate, said.

“I just enjoyed all four years I was in high school,” Wyatt, a 1945 graduate, added.

Womack, a 1944 graduate, said she too had a positive experience during the years she attended Halifax Training School.

The three said they rode the bus to school every morning, and at the beginning of every school day the children assembled in the auditorium for morning devotions.

“We would have song, scripture and prayer every morning,” Palmer recalled. 

After devotions, classes were taught in arithmetic, science, geography, history, home economics and more.

“I remember Francena Penn was my home economics teacher,” Wyatt said reminiscing about some of the teachers she had while attending Halifax Training School.

“I remember Mr. Wade Wicks was one of my teachers, and my first homeroom teacher was Mr. Moultrie. He came from New Jersey,” Palmer added.

“I remember Mr. Carl Penn and Virginia Price,” Womack said.

All three women agreed people took more pride in their educations back then, and the teachers were very dedicated and willing to make sure each child learned.

Lunch was carried from home or bought from the local store because the school didn’t have a cafeteria back then. It wasn’t until 1955 Halifax Training School got its first official cafeteria.

“We didn’t have a cafeteria. There used to be a place in the little hallway that people used to fix pots of soup and stuff like that, but we didn’t have a sit-in cafeteria like we have today,” Palmer said. “Most of the time people brought their lunches, and then there were some stores down below the school where we would go out to at recess, and you could go down to the store and buy you a sandwich.

“We would go down to Mr. Robert Gaines,’ right down there on the corner where he had a store down there, and we used to buy fish cakes and different things like that. We didn’t have anything at the school I don’t think,” Womack said.

New schoolbooks were scarce, the women recalled, and hand-me-downs were passed from one student to another.

“The quality of the schoolbooks was fair. They weren’t that good,” Womack said.

As for extracurricular activities, the women remember the school having boys and girls basketball teams. They also had a prom, dances and assemblies.  

 “I went to prom my last year when I graduated. It was like an ordinary dance. We didn’t have to wear no gowns or nothing like that. We came in broom skirts, a blouse and flats. I remember I made my skirt in home economics,” Womack said. “We graduated in white evening gowns.”

Palmer and Wyatt said they were unable to attend any of the school dances or proms because they lived so far from the school, and most families back then didn’t have transportation like they do today.

By 1955 the school had expanded, undergoing several new additions including a vocational and agricultural building and a two-story building complete with cafeteria, gym, expansive library, fully-equipped science lab and an authentic home economics space.

Following the completion of the new additions in 1956, the name of the school was changed to Mary M. Bethune High School of Halifax County.

Lealand Luck of South Boston was an agricultural education teacher at Mary Bethune where he taught for one year in 1966 before being transferred along with five other black teachers to Halifax County High School, the high school for white students.

“That was my first year teaching anywhere,” Luck said.

He said while being a new teacher was very frightening, working at Mary Bethune High School was a rewarding experience because he loved teaching, and it was always something he had wanted to do.

According to Luck, a different approach to education was taken back then.

“There was a strong realization that education was the answer to advancing in life, you do the best that you can. I appreciate every minute I spent in the classroom trying to get some education for myself,” Luck said. “My parents were real high on education. They pushed it. That was the answer to any problem you had. If you were poor, you didn’t have any money. The answer was getting something in your head, and I think it was more emphasis on that back then.”

Harvey Dillard, another former teacher of Mary Bethune High School, began teaching 11th and 12th grade history at the school in 1959 after graduating from Bluefield College in West Virginia.

“I came here on the 18th of August and been here ever since. My first year there, I lived with the principal,” Dillard said.

W.C. Edwards was the principal at that time.

According to Dillard, classrooms were full, and the students received second-hand books from the white students, which were in fair condition.

Like Wyatt, Palmer and Womack, Dillard said children seemed more focused on learning back then, and parents took more of an interest also.

“They had a more positive attitude toward education, and I enjoyed the willingness and cooperation of the students,” Dillard said.

Children had many other responsibilities back then — working on the farm and doing chores — and often they weren’t able to come to school.

According to Dillard, school back then had more of a religious background.

“In the mornings, you had to sing songs and read a Bible verse,” Dillard said. 

During assemblies students and teachers would sing spirituals, and a teacher who was also a minister would preside over the program.

All assemblies and games were opened with the Negro National Anthem as well as the Star Spangled Banner, Dillard said.

Dillard remembered the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. He said the children were called to the gym for a special assembly the day of his funeral, and they had TV sets all around the gym so the children could see what was going on.

“The students were devastated when Dr. King died,” Dillard said.

He also remembered the day President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed.

“I was still teaching in the classroom, and another teacher from down the hallway sent word up to me that the president was shot. I thought he was talking about the president of a school or something. Then he came up and asked me if I had gotten his message, and he told me that it was President John Kennedy,” Dillard recalled.

In 1960 Dillard became assistant football coach for the football team, and that following year, he became head coach.

Mary Bethune’s football team was part of the Western District Virginia Interscholastic Association and played against other black schools.

“We played such teams as Langston in Danville, Dunbar in Lynchburg, Burley in Charlottesville, Addison in Roanoke and several rural schools like Gretna and Blairs,” Dillard said.

The first football games were played during the day until 1965 when the lights were finally installed on the field. Then they began to play games at night.

“That was a big help,” Dillard said.

The former football coach said his greatest victory while coaching the football team was when the team beat Langston School in Danville, a team that had a reputation of being undefeated.

“It was like winning a championship,” he said.

Some of his star players included Roger Rice, Walter Ross, George Ross, Henry Guthrie, Wayne Guthrie, Vance Sutphin, Richard Wilkins and Clarence Ross.

Clarence Ross attended Mary Bethune High School in 1965, and he was a member of the basketball, football and track teams.

“My favorite teacher, who was my mentor, was Mrs. Francis Mitchell,” Ross said as he reminisced about some of his teachers.

 Basic math, science, English, history, home economics and industrial arts were some of the subjects offered when Ross attended Mary Bethune High School.

A typical school day for Ross was busy, and the students were allotted only one study period. He remembers getting up early in the morning to drive the school bus and staying at school until 8 or 9 p.m. because he played sports.

“I had a long day,” Ross said.

But his experience at Mary Bethune High School was a positive one.

“It was fun, hard work, and I enjoyed the relationships with my teachers and my classmates,” Ross said.

The former Mary Bethune athlete said he liked that the teachers and students were serious about their education.

“I like that everybody corrects you growing up, and the teachers didn’t play with you. They were there to teach you and not to raise you,” Ross said.

Walking at home at night after practice is something Ross said he liked the least about attending Mary Bethune High School.

Back then there wasn’t much transportation, and he didn’t have a ride home, he added.

Ross said even though supplies were scarce, and textbooks were hand-me-downs in fair condition, they had what they needed.

“Back in the day we had hand-me-downs, but we got what we needed because we had good teachers,” Ross said.

The former football player remembers attending school dances after the football games and going to the prom.

“My prom was nice. It was formal dress, and people taught you how to act and how to treat a young lady and how to have self respect,” Ross said.

Like Dillard, Ross also remembers the school having a religious background.

“You were taught religiously back then, now it’s just a choice,” Ross said.

He left Mary Bethune in 1968 after being drafted to play football and basketball for the military in Korea. He returned to finish his education in the 1970-1971 school year, the first full school year following integration of schools.

With integration came change. One of the biggest changes occurred when Mary Bethune High School became Halifax County Junior High School accommodating all junior high students in the county, while all high school students attended Halifax County Senior High School in South Boston.

Dillard became assistant principal and later athletic director at Halifax County Junior High School until his retirement in 1991, and he became the co-founder of the Mentor Role Model Program.

According to Dillard and Luck, integration was very successful in Halifax County.

Dillard credits the success to the two principals at the schools, Dr. L.H. Venable and Lazarus Bates, the students and the parents.

“Integrating in the middle of the school year was key,’” Dillard said.

Schools started the 1969-1970 school year segregated and integrated after the children came back from Christmas break, Dillard and Luck recalled.

After integration the Negro National Anthem was no longer sang, and school was no longer religion-based.

Dillard said some teachers protested this fact.

Luck said while integration was a success in Halifax County, resistance could be found in the form of private schools “popping up” in the county by people seeking to avoid integration of the races.

In other places, Luck said integration of schools faced more resistance because students were forced to integrate so much faster. 

He said if Halifax had been pressed to integrate sooner, he expects there would have been more resistance.

Halifax County Junior High School remained open until the 1979-1980 school year when the new Halifax County High School was built, and junior high students then attended school in the former high school building.