James A. Bland High School
The James A. Bland High School, now known as Big Stone Gap Town Hall, is steeped in African-American history. This high school was created in 1952 after the Central High School (Appalachia Training School) no longer suited the needs of the African-American community. Furthermore, this building is crucial in showing how Virginia reacted to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 since this high school was an example of racial segregation in public schools.
Backstory and Context
History of African-American Education in Virginia
In 1954, the Supreme Court issued the ruling on Brown v. Board of Education and within it, they stated that racial segregation within schools was unconstitutional. Before this statement was issued, Virginia began to resist. One of the most prominent cases of this resistance was the court case involving Prince Edward County (1964). The governor of Virginia, Lindsay Almond, self-proclaimed that there should remain separation of “schools, churches, and recreational facilities.” Under his leadership, Virginia continued to push for separate-but-equal ideology when it came to schooling. Prior to the court case, Almond granted funds to the school to upgrade facilities and his lawyer, Archibald Robertson, issued a statement in response to the investigation:
It was the white people who paid the taxes and maintained civilization—the Negroes were an albatross around our necks, but we brought them up with us and equalized the teachers’ salaries and gave them as good as schools as ours whenever we built new ones. Why, this Prince Edward case was instigated by the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], which was going all over the country looking for cases.
This statement by Robertson shows that Virginia attempted to maneuver around the Brown v. Board of Education decision by providing extra funding to the school and by stating that the NAACP’s case in Prince Edward was a part of their national “witch hunt.”
In the case of Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, the Supreme Court ruled that closing all public schools to void desegregation policies was unconstitutional. However, Virginia continued to resist through methods, such as stair-step, which slowly incorporated desegregation in elementary schools before applying it to high schools. Other counties in Virginia, such as Wise, also continued to resist by delaying desegregation since Brown v. Board of Education did not give a timeline of when desegregation was to occur.
History of African-American Education in Southwest Virginia
African-American education in southwest Virginia began mostly in coal camps or churches. It was not until the 1930s that African-Americans began to develop and attend public schooling. In 1937, prominent leaders of the African-American community, such as C.H. Shorter and Rex Carnes, created the Appalachian Training School outside of Appalachia, Virginia. It was later renamed the Central High School and continued operation until 1954. One might assume this was due to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, but instead it was due to an increased body of students along with poor building materials that deteriorated.
History of the Bland High School
Bland High School was opened in 1954 and cost $300,000 to build. It was situated on 5th Avenue in Big Stone Gap and placed beside the Powell River. Subjects offered at Bland High School were Algebra, Analytical Geometry, Biology, Boys Physical Education (Football or Basketball), Business, Chemistry, Civics, English Literature, English, French, History, Home Economics, Masonry, Music, Physics, Shorthand, Typing, and Woodworking. Beyond this, they hosted several clubs, such as Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) and Choir. The high school continued to operate until 1965, when integration with Powell Valley High School occurred. However, county wide racial integration policies were not in place until 1967. Furthermore, the high school went on to become Carnes Middle School (1965-1986) and later, the Town Hall of Big Stone Gap in 1987.
- Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, INC., 1975.
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- Kluger, 220.
- "Early African-American Schools in Southwest Virginia." Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park. http://www.swvamuseum.org/AfricanAmericanSchools.html.
- Saxton, Arthur L. Growing up Colored, Negro, Black in the Gap. Louisville: Profound Publishing, LLC, 2018.
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- "Early African-American Schools in Southwest Virginia."
- Saxton, 28.