An oral history effort called “The Calfee Training School Project” working to recover and tell the history of the African-American Calfee Training School in Pulaski has been awarded a $10,000 grant from The George H. and Frances Bibbens Latimer Fund at Virginia Humanities.
The Calfee School, originally built in the late 19th century as an institution for educating African American children in Pulaski, is currently sitting empty, but its story is remarkable for the set of circumstances that came together around it: a young and brave principal, a prominent and eventually successful lawsuit, the coming together of black and white communities, a mysterious, devastating school fire, and prominent attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
“The history of the Calfee Training School, while local in scope, has themes which resonate on the state and national levels,” Jill Williams wrote in the winning grant proposal
Willams, grew up in Pulaski, but left when she was 17 working for the next 20 years in civil society truth-seeking initiatives and oral history projects largely around race in the United States.
“I was the executive director of the first U.S.-based truth and reconciliation commission in Greensboro, NC and, later as a foundation program officer, was in the position to support similar efforts in Maine, Detroit, Boston, Charlottesville, VA and Durham, NC. Later, as a consultant with the International Center for Transitional Justice, I had the opportunity research similar efforts all over the world and to try to distill best practices,” Williams said in an email.
The grant, fiscally sponsored by the YMCA of Pulaski County, will support a paid youth internship program in which local youth will be trained in oral history interview techniques, archival research, and digital video and audio recording and editing.
Williams and Salvador Barajas, both local community members with extensive experience with historical memory efforts will serve as manage and lead the research.
“I knew nothing of this rich history right here in my hometown until a couple years ago. As I started talking to friends and neighbors and reading the little that has been written on the the topic, I realized that not only is this a fascinating story to me, but also that the community was ripe with people wanting to tell it and be heard. I’m only one of several people working on the project. They’d all have their own answers for you, but this is mine,” she said of the multilayered project.
Interns will also provide support to Adaire Theatre founder, Kendall Payne, who will be using the interviews and other archival information collected to create a documentary theatrical production about the history of the school.
The entire effort is guided by the newly formed advisory board for the community memory project, which consists of Calfee Training School alumni and their family members.
Guy Smith, son of Calfee Training School alumni and director of the Pulaski County Department of Social Services, has been a driving force in the effort to revitalize the history of the Calfee Training School.
“Even though I was never a student there, I am a product of Calfee Training School,” Guy said. “If it weren’t for the sacrifices made by many individuals in Pulaski, I wouldn’t be fortunate enough to have the opportunities I have now.”
But he understands that he’s not alone in his sense of responsibility for preserving this legacy. “I am just one of many people who have benefited from that legacy and, as an African American male, the story is especially important to me and my peers. I think it is important that we learn the lessons that the past has taught us so that we can avoid some of those obstacles in the future.”
The Calfee Training School Project is working to not only recover the history of the school, but also to renovate the actual building into a community and cultural center, the first phase of which will house a much-needed childcare facility, a partnership of local agencies led by the YMCA of Pulaski County. The building will also be home to the community memory project.
“This project is a living breathing thing,” Ashley Edmonds, member of the newly formed advisory board for the community memory project said. “We are not just looking at the past for the sake of looking at the past. It’s also about childcare and music and supporting families. This effort can address present day issues in our community.”
The advisory board members for the historical memory project include Ashley Edmonds, Guy Smith, Yolanda Hunter Bulls, Vera Carter, Hattie Conner, Kim Edmonds, Lisa Johnson, Kendall Payne, Connie Patterson, Sheila Simmons, Angel Slaughter, Carolyn Smith, Rebecah Smith, and Richard Smith.
Youth interested in applying for the paid internship program and Calfee alumni and others interested in being interviewed and/or volunteering with the effort should contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.calfeetrainingschoolproject.org.