A historic photo of Christiansburg Institute.

Christiansburg Institute: A Friend to the CFNRV, and Mover and Shaker in the New River Valley

A historic photo of Christiansburg Institute.

In 2020, the Community Foundation of the New River Valley (CFNRV)’s Board of Directors established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force. The purpose of this task force is to examine all aspects of our work through our commitment to DEI:

  • We believe all people are equal and worthy of dignity, honor, and full inclusion in community life.
  • We seek to support more equitable opportunities and access for all community members throughout the New River Valley.
  • We recognize 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 nonprofits in our region who are led by and/or serve diverse and underrepresented or underserved communities. Christiansburg Institute (CI) is one of these.

The historic school has been a grant recipient, participated in the annual online GiveLocalNRV Giving Day and Third Thursday Society events, and was among the first organizations to take part in our Nonprofit Accelerator. We recently spoke with Executive Director, Christopher Sanchez, about the work of CI and its extraordinary history.  

A rich history

Christiansburg Industrial Institute was the first high school in Southwest Virginia that educated the formerly enslaved. It operated from 1866 until the desegregation of schools in 1966 in Montgomery County. CI empowered generations of African-Americans from across Southwest Virginia and beyond for a century. 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 began in 1866, it was more of a primary school curriculum teaching basic skills such as reading. It later transitioned into higher curriculum levels and trades.

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.

The CI Today

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. They do this 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, 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. They are essential to telling a true and complete history of the sites. CI plans to extend this trail throughout Montgomery County and to launch additional projects to amplify the Black History Trail.

Partnerships across the region

CI focuses its work in Christiansburg and Montgomery County. However, they do collaborate with other organizations with similar missions. The Calfee Community and Cultural Center in Pulaski County has a similar history as an African-American school. For example, many students were bused from the Calfee Center to the Christiansburg Institute. Additionally, CI works with Pulaski’s T.G. Howard Community Center, organizations in Roanoke and Gainesboro, 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. Also, CI educates younger visitors who may not be aware of CI’s history and the experiences of the county’s Black residents.

Learn more & support CI’s mission

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. 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. Additionally, 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/.

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