The Community Foundation of the New River Valley (CFNRV)’s Board of Directors established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force in 2020 to examine all aspects of the CFNRV’s work through our commitment to DEI. The Task Force and Board of Directors began by articulating our commitment as follows: We believe all people are equal and worthy of dignity, honor, and full inclusion in community life. Through our work, we seek to support more equitable opportunities and access for all community members throughout the New River Valley, recognizing that historic and systemic barriers pose ongoing and complex challenges. While this official statement is new, the CFNRV’s interest in and commitment to DEI has been a part of our leadership development and grant-making activities for many years.

The CFNRV has worked with several nonprofit organizations in the New River Valley who are led by and/or serve diverse and often underrepresented or underserved communities. Christiansburg Institute (CI) is one of these. The historic school has been a grant recipient, participated in GiveLocalNRV and Third Thursday Society events, and was among the first organizations to take part in the Nonprofit Accelerator. We recently took the time to chat with Executive Director, Christopher Sanchez about the work of Christiansburg Institute and its extraordinary history.  

Christiansburg Industrial Institute was the first high school in Southwest Virginia that educated the formerly enslaved, operating from 1866 until the desegregation of schools in 1966 in Montgomery County. CI empowered generations of African-American’s from across Southwest Virginia and beyond for a century. It is important to note, that in 1866, the literacy rate in Montgomery County in the African American community was 1%. When many hear the term “high school”, they might be thinking about high school curriculum today, but when CI started to educate in 1866, it was more of a primary school curriculum teaching basic skills such as reading, and later transitioned into higher curriculum levels and trades. When Booker T. Washington became an advisor to CI in 1896, he instituted a new curriculum, like those of the Tuskegee and Hampson Institutes. That curriculum continued throughout the early twentieth century. There are many businesses in Montgomery County today started by those who learned skills at CI. As an example, Mr. Charles Johnson attended CI, and took up barbery. After graduation, he fought in the Korean War and came back to open five barbershops in Montgomery County.

Today, Christiansburg Institute is a nonprofit organization, managed by a 15-member Board of Directors and operated by its Executive Director. CI’s mission is to preserve and promote the historic Christiansburg Industrial Institute through enacting its legacies of education, service, and excellence. They preserve history, tell stories, educate, organize community events, and are stewards of the Institute’s 100-year history. CI was created by the Christiansburg Institute Alumni Association (CIAA) in 1996.

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, when CI was forced to close its doors for the safety of staff and community members, an idea emerged that they have had for years: The Black History Trail. This is a driving trail that has five stops in Christiansburg highlighting the town’s rich black history. There is a brochure with a map of the stops and QR codes leading to CI’s website and detailed information about each stop. CI is working closely with community members to make sure that they are getting this history right. Several members of the community lived during Jim Crow and segregation, and they are key to telling a true and complete history of the sites.  CI plans to extend this trail throughout Montgomery County as they are able, and to launch additional projects to amplify the Black History Trail.

CI focuses its work in Christiansburg and Montgomery County. However, they do collaborate with other organizations with similar missions. For example, many students were bused from the Calfee Center to the Christiansburg Institute. The Calfee Cultural Center in Pulaski County has a similar history as an African-American school. CI also works with the T.G. Howard Center, organizations in Roanoke and Gainesboro, and with the government, Radford University, Virginia Tech, and the public schools. Before the pandemic, Montgomery County Public Schools had all 4th graders visit CI. Working closely with organizations that preserve and celebrate the black experience has helped many to move forward and deal with generational, racial trauma. It also educates younger visitors who may not be aware of CI’s incredible history and the experiences of the county’s black residents.

As Sanchez stated, Christiansburg Institute is “a timeless playground that can go forward, backward, left and right”. It touches so many people within Montgomery County. His favorite thing about CI is the ability to create and collaborate on sacred ground and see the work that many have done for years. Several generations have been impacted by the work of CI, and many more will as CI’s programs and restoration work continues.  You can get involved in moving the work forward in many ways. Donating to the Christiansburg Institute at https://www.givelocalnrv.org/organization/Christiansburg-Institute. will make the biggest impact. If you are not in a position to donate, there are still ways that you can help. You can visit the Christiansburg Institute’s website to educate yourself and find resources. You can volunteer to write letters of support for funding requests and grants, and you can help CI collect African American and Rural Appalachian artifacts for their museum and to preserve history. To learn more, visit https://www.christiansburginstitute.com/.