Holley Graded School gathering features past, present, future
By Katherine Cassidy
LOTTSBURG, Virginia — Trustees of the Holley Graded School, which shaped a community of learners more than 150 years ago, are working today to revive that same kind of community vibrancy.
The school, which closed in 1959, was the site of a reunion of alumni and friends February 27. They showed up to observe an online Zoom presentation about the school’s past and enjoyed sharing visions for the school’s future as a fully restored community center and museum.
More than 30 stakeholders invested in preserving the school’s role as an icon of Black education made a festive occasion out of the chance to join together again. As members of the stewardship group Holley School Incorporated, they had not met in person for more than two years because of Covid-19 pandemic precautions.
The gathering was graced by several Holley alumni, including four who attended the school between 1939 and 1944. These are Jean Hooper Campbell of Ditchley; two sisters, Ilva Thompson Smith of Callao, and Darnell Thompson Connor of Lottsburg; and their cousin, Warren Thompson of Callao.
“I’m just so thankful to be here today, and I will continue to keep my dues up,” Connor said of the nonprofit Holley School Incorporated, which oversees the building’s present and future. “I’m 90 years old, almost 91.”
Sunday’s Zoom discussion presented by Holley trustees and alumni was organized jointly with the Lancaster Virginia Historical Society. On February 22 historical society board members had presented another public Zoom about Holley Graded School history.
Both the February 22 and 27 Zoom recordings are available for free viewing on the historical society’s website, www.LancasterVaHistory.org.
The February 22 Zoom relied on audio tapes of 13 Black elders telling stories from their schooldays. Those memories had been recorded 20 years earlier for the historical society’s “Closing the Gap” project. That involved recording voices of more than 60 Black residents recalling their life experiences from 1920s to 1980s, in the Lower Northern Neck.
The Parkers are one of numerous families with deep educational roots at Holley Graded over its 90-year history. Garfield Parker Jr., now 72, attended until the school’s closure in 1959. He recognized an opportunity to connect the Holley legacy with LVHS when he got involved with the society’s oral history committee about a year ago.
Today a board member of both Holley School Inc. and LVHS, used the first Zoom to introduce words from his own father, who had started at the school in 1938. But Garfield Parker Sr. was one of many boys who left school after just four to seven years in order to work and support the family income.
Once together again last weekend, many alumni shared personal memories of the school heated by pot belly stoves. Every student was expected to carry in wood every morning to keep the fires burning, noted Harold Blackwell, Holley School Inc.’s board president. He had driven from his longtime home in Baltimore to attend the event.
The four eldest alumni who turned out on February 27 gathered for a photo around the school’s original pot belly stove.
“They all said that the stove was a lot smaller than they remembered,” Parker said.
Holley Graded School was founded shortly after the Civil War to serve the
freed people of the Lottsburg community in Northumberland County, according to LVHS research. Members of Lottsburg’s Zion Baptist Church and other Black residents who desired schooling for their children worked with northern white educators and activists to call their first teacher, Miss Caroline F. Putnam in 1868.
The school closed in 1959 when Lottsburg Elementary opened, but
the building still stands today with few alterations. The property was added to the Virginia Historic Landmarks Register in 1989 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
Open to the public only seasonally now, it continues to take shape as a community center and museum, funds-allowing. The next steps in the building’s restoration are stabilizing the foundation, renovating the restrooms, and replacing all the windows.