Christiansburg Institute continues to digitize history


CHRISTIANBURG, Va. — A century of Black educational history in the New River Valley deserves to be preserved online for a global audience, the leadership of the Christiansburg Institute has said.

“It’s not in the history books,” said Debbie Sherman-Lee, who attended the Christiansburg Institute for a year as an eighth grader. “It was wonderful.”

Sherman-Lee now chairs the Christiansburg Institute’s nonprofit Cultural Heritage Association, whose mission statement includes “responsible stewardship of African American history, stories, and culture.”

The Christiansburg Institute opened as a school for the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War in 1866 and grew into a 185-acre campus serving thousands of black students, under the direction of renowned civil rights leaders such than Booker T. Washington.

During the segregation era, Christiansburg Institute served as the regional black high school for 15 surrounding counties, then operated by Montgomery County.

She remembers looking down the hill as a student at Friends Elementary, now the County Schools Cadet Corps building, seeing the older Christiansburg Institute students walking between the buildings during the class change and want to be there.

“Montgomery County missed an opportunity to let students stay on this campus and have a school there to use this land,” Sherman-Lee said. “It could have been like a community college.”

The Christiansburg Institute closed in 1966, after Sherman-Lee’s eighth grade, when the public schools were integrated. All of his classmates across the New River Valley were dispersed to their local school divisions, separated from each other.

“It was tough,” Sherman-Lee said. “I didn’t have my friends from the African-American communities in my classes.”

Worse, she said, there was a sense of educational neglect when she arrived at Christiansburg High School.

“The Christiansburg Institute teachers were very strict, but they were caring. They wanted us to be able to come out with a purpose,” Sherman-Lee said. “We didn’t feel that when we went to Christiansburg High School. We didn’t even think we mattered.

On top of everything, black students faced discrimination from their peers.

“The insults were a big thing,” she said. “Some of my friends had it even harder than me.”

To know the century-old history of the Christiansburg Institute is to remember the struggles faced by marginalized people in Appalachia, and the progress made in overcoming discrimination through education.

You can learn more about that history online now with a growing collection of digitized content from the Christiansburg Institute Archives, Sherman-Lee said.

“It’s important that people know about the Christiansburg Institute,” she said. “There are so many people who live here most of their lives, and they have no idea that the Christiansburg Institute was even there.”

Browse photographs, excerpts, correspondence and school history yearbook pages online at, said Christiansburg Institute curator Jenny Nehrt.

“We have a lot of alumni and teacher collections, scrapbooks, photographs,” Nehrt said. “So many wonderful photographs of things from campus life, home life, parades, pageants, drama club, sports games…”

More historical content is regularly uploaded to the Christiansburg Institute’s digital archive, such as upcoming articles by Edgar A. Long, she said. Long served as director of the Christiansburg Institute from 1906 to 1924 and was mentored by Booker T. Washington.

“Like Booker T. Washington, Edgar Long wrote extensively about his thoughts on education, religion, race relations, his ideas for the way forward for the United States, and even beautiful poetry,” Nehrt said. . “We have a few hundred pages of his handwritten notes, lectures and speeches which we are really excited to digitize and share.”

The Christiansburg Institute is scanning its physical shelves using oversized scanning equipment, Nehrt said. A grant enabled the institute to purchase this material, with help on the application from Virginia Tech University Libraries, said Alex Kinnaman, digital preservation coordinator.

“We hope this relationship is the perfect case study for building a foundation of trust with other regional communities, so we can do the same with their materials,” Kinnaman said of Virginia Tech helping digitize historical archives. “It’s all so valuable and so cool, but so many local organizations just don’t have the expertise, the funding, or the access to technology to be able to do it.”

She encouraged people with their own archives to contact university libraries about online preservation.

At the Christiansburg Institute, the digitization of more than 50,000 pages of school history will continue through June 2024, Nehrt said. The physical archives can also be viewed, for now at 125 Arrowhead Trail, Suite F, in Christiansburg, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

“We are still working on renovating the Edgar A. Long building, which is the last surviving campus building,” Nehrt said. “We hope to renovate this building in the next two years and move our museum and archives there.”

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