October 21, 2021

Small School, Big Impact: How the Calfee Training School Changed Black Education In America

Situated in the small town of Pulaski, Virginia, the Calfee Training School is a hidden gem, and is yet another part of the history of school integration and equity in the United States. The significance of the school lies in the story of a trailblazing principal, courageous residents, a successful civil rights lawsuit, and ties to a prominent attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Through a series of monumental events in the early- to mid-20th century, the story of Calfee Training School encapsulates Black Americans' difficult fight with public education and Jim Crow on the state and national levels. In some ways, one can view the events at this school and similar cases as stepping stones to the broader story of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

A group of students and teachers from Calfee School in Pulaski, Virginia. They are partially seated and standing in four to five uneven rows and are in what appears to be a uniform for both the male and female students.

photo by: Harmon Collection

An image of students and teachers from 1924 with what is believed to be the first Calfee Training School building in the background.

Chauncey Depew Harmon and the Fight for Equal Pay

Erected in 1894, the Calfee Training School opened as a public school to train Black American children in trades. In 1938, 25-year-old Pulaski native and Calfee teacher Chauncey Depew Harmon became principal. As a young man, Harmon attended Calfee before graduating from the Tuskegee Institute, where he studied and worked under agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. When he returned home to Pulaski, he found a dilapidated and neglected school and realized that he was no longer satisfied with unequal conditions and pay. White teachers were paid an average of $733 during the 1938-39 school year, while Black teachers were paid an average of $513.

When the school board appointed Harmon as the principal of Calfee, they were unaware of Harmon’s correspondence with Marshall to serve as a plaintiff in the first legal effort for equalization of facilities and faculty pay in Virginia. Marshall informed him to keep it a secret because he did not want people to interfere with or sabotage the case.

“Even as a young child, he was concerned about fairness and things being just and right,” said Dr. Marylen Harmon, the daughter of Chauncey and Lucy Harmon. “He was pretty much like that all of his life. Even if he had to speak up, he knew that sometimes you have to take that risk."

Exterior of a brick building that has a center section flanked by two indented wings. There are a total of six large windows and an entryway with an triangular overhang.

photo by: Jill Williams

Present day exterior view of the Calfee Training School building.

Months into his role as principal, in November 1938, Calfee Training School burned down. Shortly after, Harmon and the Black community were involved in a public disagreement with the Pulaski County School Board about providing temporary facilities for the students. The school board also disagreed with Harmon’s request to create a long-term plan to build a new, updated school.

Harmon and the Black community received widespread support from the white community and local newspapers, but the school board disapproved of their efforts. In response, the NAACP, led by attorney Thomas Hewin, filed petitions in early 1939 with the names of Harmon and another teacher, Willis Gravely, listed, demanding equalization of salaries and facilities. The Pulaski County School Board rejected the petitions but eventually approved the proposed plans through pressure from the public. The school board did not renew Harmon’s and Gravely’s contracts at the end of the school year, and the educators never worked for Pulaski County Public Schools again.

Two individuals sitting side by side in a newspaper clipping that states identifies the individuals as Mr. and Mrs. Chauncy D. Harmon, Educators with an award in front of them for Harmon's efforts to educate Black people in Wvythville.

photo by: Southwest Times

From the Southwest Times on Sunday, October 2, 1983. Part of an article titled "Southwest Times, Sunday, October 2, 1983, "Native honored for educational work."

A square card that indicates the movement of one student from the 7th to the 8th grades in 1955. The card has the student's name (Charlotte Ann Clark) along with the date and grades. It is signed by the principal and indicates who the next teacher will be.

photo by: Calfee Community and Cultural Center

A promotion card from the Calfee Training School c. 1955.

The school board moved forward with building the new school for $35,000. Meanwhile $48,000 was spent on building the new gymnasium and other amenities at Pulaski High, an all-white school.

Harmon stopped working in education for years, and although he was no longer principal, Black residents continued his fight for school equality. He moved to Pennsylvania to work as a barber for some time and eventually returned to education in Wytheville, Virginia, in 1944.

A Civil Rights Victory

In 1947, Pulaski residents, including notable Pulaski physician Dr. Percy C. Corbin, sued the Pulaski County School Board over unequal school facilities and were represented by civil rights lawyers Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson. (Hill previously won equal pay cases in the eastern part of Virginia, such as Alston v. School Board of City of Norfolk.) The suit, Corbin v. County School Board of Pulaski County, called attention to the unequal treatment of Calfee compared to Pulaski High School—which was two blocks away—such as holes in the floors, lack of transportation, and fewer school days allotted to students. Pulaski High School also had a library and cafeteria, while Calfee did not.

The families won the case in 1949, making the Corbin v. County School Board of Pulaski County one of the six successful equalization cases filed by the NAACP. After the win, the NAACP shifted its focus towards desegregation cases filed, which paved the way to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Calfee’s teachers reached a major milestone that changed the future of education. Despite facing underfunding and unequal conditions, Calfee became a community staple and positively influenced Black families' lives across generations until Pulaski County's public schools became fully desegregated in 1966. A Head Start preschool program was housed in Calfee years after, and in 1990, Magnox Corporation renovated it as an office space. The building eventually became vacant and sat empty for almost a decade.

Rebirth as the Calfee Community and Cultural Center

In 2018, a group of local citizens partnered with Pulaski organizations, including The Town of Pulaski, the YMCA of Pulaski County, and the Pulaski County Department of Social Services, to create the Calfee Training School Project to honor the school's history and revitalize the abandoned building to serve the community. After engaging 150 Calfee alumni and other residents in a community-wide visioning process to consider the best use for the building, the project moved forward to create the Calfee Community and Cultural Center (CCCC), which in 2019 seated a 15-member board of directors and was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation. Through the community's support, the school will transform into a multi-use community resource and childcare facility.

The organizations and community members will revitalize the 81-year-old building to support Pulaski residents by offering social, educational, and cultural programming in the area through the Calfee Training School Museum, natural outdoor spaces, event spaces, and office spaces. Other components of the future facility will be named after notable teachers and staff who worked at the school, such as the Lena Huckstep Community Kitchen, Dorothy DeBerry Venable Digital Learning Lab, the Chauncey and Lucy Harmon Learning Center, the Willis Gravely Board Room, and the Broadneaux-Baker Hall.

A group of masked individuals around a round table covered in a white table cloth.

photo by: Calfee Community and Cultural Center

A view of one of the groups from the Venable Digital Learning Lab Visioning Event. The group pictured includes Mrs. Dorothy DeBerry Venable who taught at the Calfee Training School and for whom the digital learning lab is named.

The Chauncey and Lucy Harmon Learning Center will honor Harmon and his wife, Lucy, who also worked as a teacher at the school. The YMCA will operate the childcare center and provide early childhood education opportunities to address the lack of childcare in Pulaski County. The 4,000-square-foot center will have six classrooms to provide care for 100 children, ranging from infants to school-aged kids.

Dr. Harmon said she's very humbled and grateful that her parents are being honored. She shared that it would please them because children were always a significant factor in their lives.

Dr. Mickey Hickman, the board president of CCCC and an alumnus of the school, is looking forward to Calfee's return as a hub where the community can gather and collaborate. He has fond memories of attending the school, such as his experience with students and staff, the life-long lessons he learned, school events, and playing outside, recalling how he caught his first fish at the nearby creek.

Jessie Woods, CEO of the YMCA of Pulaski County, said that she feels so lucky that she will play a role in bringing quality education and kids' laughter and smiles back to Calfee. She believes good, quality childcare will encourage more people to move to the town.

"The first time I heard Dr. Harmon talk about her father and how much he loved the kids in Pulaski, I could relate to that on such a deep level," Woods said, on carrying on Harmon's legacy. "It nearly brought me to tears thinking about what he gave up and [how he] couldn't come back and teach in the community that he loves so much, that for me, that would be so heartbreaking."

Many citizens across the nation are unaware of their community’s historical significance. Hopefully this story will inspire other small areas across the country to dig up their community's rich history and contributions.

"Both of my parents were very strong in faith and prayer. ... In the end, this has come full circle," Dr. Harmon said. "It's really putting Pulaski on the map. As I mentioned, when people at Tuskegee asked, 'Well, where is this place called Pulaski?', my dad would say, 'You'll find out one day.'"

Today is the day.

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Brianna Rhodes is a journalist and entrepreneur who writes on various topics, including Black culture, diversity and inclusion, race, and social justice. She is also the founder of a creative agency called Brianna Rhodes Writes. She is a past Fellow of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

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