Oak Grove School marker unveiled

Approximately 50 people attended the unveiling of the Oak Grove School Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail Marker. ( Bobby Conner photo)

LAWRENCEVILLE – The former Oak Grove School located at 22355 Christanna Highway has special memories for the students and teachers and is now a new stop on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. A marker with photos and the history of the school has been installed at the site and a dedication ceremony to unveil the marker was held at Oak Grove Baptist Church located nearby on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.  

As background, Oak Grove School was originally a one room log building located on the grounds of Oak Grove Church.  Between 1923 and 1924, for the sum of $3,000, a new three-room school was built on the same site.  The school is an example of the many community schools created throughout the region and state to help educate and train African-Americans.

The Oak Grove School was a practical training school, which provided students with training in basic skills, trades, farming and home economics.  Older students were responsible for helping teach material to the rest of the class. Later the school served as a segregated elementary school for the community.

Carla Martindale, who attends Oak Grove Baptist Church, offered a word of welcome and introduced the speakers.

“Thank you for attending the dedication of the Oak Grove School to the Civil Rights in Education Trail, this is an important day for us all.” Martindale said.

Rev. Regina Williams, the first lady of Oak Grove Baptist Church, welcomed the guests. Rev. Harold Williams offered a prayer of thanksgiving.

Martindale said Oak Grove Baptist Church is honored to be a part of the history of education in the Commonwealth of Virginia. She said the Oak Grove School is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished, even in difficult times, when a community comes together with a common goal.

Martindale read a letter from Julie Langan, Director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, who was unable to attend the ceremony but wanted to convey her best wishes and congratulations that the important history of Oak Grove School and its significant contributions to the community are being duly recognized and shared with the public.  

Beverly Hawthorne, Chair, Virginia’s Crossroads, gave an interesting history of the trail, emphasizing how many years it took for the trail to become a reality. The name Civil Rights in Education Trail says many things – civil rights in education for the people of color, women, those with disabilities and now includes 41 sites. Hawthorne mentioned the markers located at Southside Virginia Community College, Saint Paul’s College, and Fort Christanna – the school for Native American children.

Hawthorne encouraged those attending to pick up a brochure that gives a listing and map of the others sites on the trail.

A highlight of the program was hearing the stories of former students who shared what they remembered about attending the school. There was a common thread woven in all three stories – a love for the students and teachers of Oak Grove School. The students were: David Green who is retired from the Virginia State Police; Monica Taylor who retired from the federal government after 30 plus years of service; and former Sheriff James Woodley.

Green said he was not fond of speaking in public but agreed to share some memories of attending the school more than 70 years ago. He said there were three rooms and the grades were divided into grades 1 and 2, grades 3, 4, 5 and grades 6 and 7. The students then attended the James Solomon Russell High School located in Lawrenceville. He remembered the names of teachers and the name of the principal.

Green said the boys had chores like bringing in firewood and water from the pump. There was no heat or air conditioning.

“The church played an important role in the school. I could not ask for a better education than the one I received at Oak Grove School. It got me to where I am today,” Green said.

Woodley thanked the organizers for the invitation to speak. He attended the school in 1956-57 and named some of the teachers. He also was responsible for getting in firewood and oiling the boards of the floor. Woodley remembers playing outside during recess. He said he learned to see the good in everyone and to have faith. Woodley said that was the key to living in harmony with God’s plan.

Taylor spoke passionately about her love for Oak Grove School. She is the youngest sibling and couldn’t wait to attend school. Taylor also spoke of former teachers she remembered that had an impact on her life. She remembered using #2 pencils, learning the multiplication tables, using flashcards and reading Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin. Taylor remembered a leaf collection, playing on the see saw, the Maypole, and having lots of friends. Taylor remembered going to the library in Lawrenceville and the potbelly stove.

“Attending Oak Grove School prepared me for Virginia State University, working for the federal government, supporting the military. My education gave me the foundation and was an important part of my life,” Taylor said.

Leslie Weddington, County Administrator, said she really enjoyed hearing the stories of the former students and shared her excitement about the unveiling of the marker.

“This is a wonderful day for Brunswick County - to have the official dedication and unveiling of the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail marker for the former Oak Grove School. This marker will serve to remind people of the past as well as provide guidance for the future. It is a chance to preserve history and to educate.”

“The Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail is the first memorial trail of its kind in Virginia dedicated to commemorating the African-American, American-Indian and women’s struggle for equality in education. The addition of this marker adds a total of five stops on the trail in Brunswick County.”

“It is truly heartwarming to see how proud our community is to have this marker here and for it to become a new stop on the trail in Brunswick County,” Weddington stated.

Dr. Barbara Jarrett Harris, Chair, Brunswick County Board of Supervisors, said she was excited to be a part of the event representing her fellow colleagues. She said it is important to look back and remember. Dr. Harris said she also remembered using the #2 pencils.

“The Civil Rights in Education Trail says something about what happened and is an important historical site that says change can happen in Brunswick County. She said Brunswick County is a location of choice. Hold on and wait to see what is going to happen,” Dr. Harris said.

Delegate Roslyn Tyler said she was glad to be a part of the dedication ceremony. She said it is always good to remember where we came from and the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail includes Black history and culture. Tyler said she supported funding the trail that will bring visitors to Brunswick County and Southside Virginia.

Tyler read a letter of congratulations from Governor Ralph Northam and presented a copy of the letter and a framed resolution acknowledging Oak Grove School as part of the trail to Rev. Williams.

At the close of the service Martindale offered a special thanks to Bobby Conner who worked for years to see this project come to fruition. She also thanked Dixie Walker, Tourism Coordinator and Vice Chair of Virginia Crossroads, for overseeing the signs on Route 46 that indicate the marker.

“I would also like to thank the Oak Grove Baptist Church congregation for agreeing to become a member of the Civil Rights in Education Trail,” Martindale said.

The Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail® was established in 2004, and is owned and managed by Virginia’s Crossroads, a tourism marketing consortium comprised of the localities of Amelia, Appomattox, Brunswick, Buckingham, Charlotte, Dinwiddie, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, and Prince Edward, and also includes the City of Petersburg and Greensville/Emporia, Virginia State Parks and Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. 

Twelve new sites have been added to the trail’s original 41 locations, expanding the stories, which recount how African Americans, Native Americans and women fought for the right to equal education. Along with adding the new sites, all 41 original signs have been updated with newly uncovered information and photographs.

With the addition of the Oak Grove School, there are now five stops on the trail in Brunswick County. Those are Southside Virginia Community College, Fort Christanna, Saint Paul’s College/James Solomon Russell – Saint Paul’s College Museum, Hospital and School of the Good Shepherd and Oak Grove School.

For additional information on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail®, visit vacrossroads.com.