There is no official designation nor community celebration of Black History Month in Botetourt County.
The Botetourt County Historical Society Museum in Fincastle has an on-going display about some of the county’s African American history, and county libraries have had displays during February to recognize Black History Month.
Historian Judy Barnett has been instrumental in those displays, and thought it was appropriate to consider the history of the County-Wide League that got its start in the 1930s over the conditions of Black schools in the county.
More than four score years later, education is still a central part of the league’s mission today— providing scholarships to qualified graduating seniors.
Barnett shared the County-Wide League’s history.
By JUDY BARNETT
The County-Wide League was founded by Lithonia McFarlin Gibbs. There is no documented record of when the Botetourt County-Wide League was organized. But, it had to be before January 24, 1937. According to the 1937 diary of Arena J. Richardson Preston, she made an entry January 24 1937, “the County-Wide League of Botetourt met at the Baptist Church.” There are several entries in Arena J. Richardson Preston’s 1937 and 1938 diaries for meetings of the County-Wide League in the different communities of Botetourt County.
An article ran in The Fincastle Herald February 10, 1999 by Bob Willis– it’s an interview with Viola Anselette Johnson Merchant and Zenobia Johnson Ferguson.
At a meeting on a hot Sunday afternoon in August 1934, at First Baptist Church in Fincastle, the Botetourt County-Wide League was formed, officers were elected – Arena Richardson Preston of Fincastle was the first president– and committees named to meet with the county School Board to advance the needs of “colored children” in Botetourt. The idea for this organization came from one similarly named in Montgomery County. They contacted Abraham Walker, principal of Christiansburg Industrial Institute, to help them form their own league. Walker came, along with Timothy Mallory, the Rev. F.E. Alexander and Mrs. Florence Fields Woods.
Viola Merchant and Zenobia Ferguson were only girls then. But they recall that the League held fund-raising activities, the first being a musical play, “Heaven Bound,” put on by the Montgomery County-Wide League at First Baptist.
Several Black children (from Botetourt County) were enrolled in Abraham Walker’s boarding school in Christiansburg in the next few years. Among them were Zenobia Ferguson, Lottie Collins Burks, Isabelle Burks, Loraine Day, Mary Nicholas, Hannah Nicholas, Victoria Reid, Mabel Early, Josephine Coleman, Lucille Girty Craighead and Margaret Freeman.
In Botetourt, school conditions were deplorable for Blacks. They had four schools – in Fincastle, Buchanan and Eagle Rock. While white children rode to school in buses, Blacks had to walk, sometimes for miles. Academy Hill in Fincastle had only three rooms originally. It had outdoor toilets, no central heat and no library. Black parents raised money to provide some educational tools such as typewriters.
The old Odd Fellows Hall in Fincastle was converted to a cafeteria and primary-grade classrooms. “It would shake when the wind blew,” said Zenobia Ferguson. A county school bus garage also was pressed into service for classroom space.
According to School Board minutes, on numerous occasions members of the Black community came before the Botetourt County School Board asking for help with the Black schools in the county, also requesting a high school so that the children wanting a high school education would not have to go out of the county. In 1940, a high school was opened at Academy Hill in Fincastle.
The Fincastle Herald reported on March 21, 1957: “Some 65 Negro patrons came before the Board of Supervisors and earnestly but good-naturedly told of their deplorably inadequate facilities which they have patiently sought to have improved for 27 years. Mrs. Hilda Otey led the appeal and after a dozen or so had spoken, she said they would go home and pray for favorable action.”
The County-Wide League was a part of Academy Hill School until it closed in the spring of 1959 and Central Academy School when it opened in the fall of 1959 until school integration in 1966. The County-Wide League gave scholarships to graduates, helped with various items needed for the African American schools in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Central Academy School became Botetourt Intermediate and then renamed William Clark. Malanie Parker Jones became concerned about the school being named William Clark and wanted to have it become Central Academy again, so she contacted several community members and reorganized the Botetourt County-Wide League and started working with the School Board to get the school renamed. It took about five years. In July 2001, the School Board voted to change the middle school name to Central Academy Middle School.
In the 1999-2000 school year, the County-Wide League started giving scholarships to one graduate from James River High School and one from Lord Botetourt High School. Funds were raised through the annual May Day held each year since 2000 at Central Academy Middle School. One scholarship was named “The Lithonia McFarlin Gibbs and Arena Richardson Preston Scholarship,” going to a James River graduate in memory of the League founded and Mrs. Preston, who was a supporter and major contributor to the original scholarship fund. The second scholarship, named the “County-Wide League Scholarship,” goes to a Lord Botetourt graduate in loving memory and honor of the parents and grandparents of Academy Hill and Central Academy Schools who labored tirelessly to provide a quality education for their children.