By Callie Hietala
Last weekend, a crowd gathered by a busy roadside in Martinsville, near the corner of East Church Street and Boden Street. Next to the gathering was a sign, covered by two American flags.
The crowd was made up of Martinsville City officials, community leaders, and former students of East Martinsville High School. The sign, once unveiled, was a new historical highway marker commemorating a jewel of the Black community during the Jim Crow era—the Dry Bridge School, later known as East Martinsville Grammar School and, finally, East Martinsville Elementary School.
The school was built on Jordan Street in what used to be known as Cherrytown. It served the entire East Martinsville Black community from 1928 until 1968, when it closed as the city desegregated its schools, nearly 15 years after Brown vs. Board of Education struck down the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Martinsville’s first Dry Bridge Colored School, located on Old Danville Road (now Brookdale Street), opened its doors in 1900 and served the community until the 1920s by which time it had fallen into severe disrepair. Despite repeated requests, the Henry County School Board did not provide funding for repairs. The Rev. William F. Geter, of the First Baptist Church of East Martinsville, created the School Improvement League and campaigned in the community to raise money to buy land for a new school.
The league appealed to the Rosenwald Rural School Building Program to help with the funding and construction of the new facility. The program was created by Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery in Franklin County and later rose to prominence as the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, in partnership with philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck, as part of an effort to improve public education for Black students in the rural South during segregation.
A survey completed in 2019 by the private, nonprofit historic preservation organization Preservation Virginia, identified more than 5,500 Rosenwald schools built across the United States, including three in Martinsville. The Grassy Creek School, on Rosenwall Drive, and the Henry County Training School, on the corner of 2nd and Fayette streets, have both been demolished, but the third, the Dry Bridge School, still stands on Jordan Street.
Rosenwald didn’t want to just give those 5,000 schools to the people, said Imogene Hodge Draper, a former student of East Martinsville who spent years doing research and leading the effort to place the historic marker.
“He said, ‘I will join hands with you, and you must raise money in the community, and we’ll do this together,’” she said.
With the money and plans provided by the program, a four-room brick school was built. Draper recalled the beautiful long windows that took advantage of the natural light.
“It was really beautiful to go to school every day and sit in that building,” she recalled. Ms. Gilmer, the first-grade teacher, “was forever making it prettier and prettier. We had such pride in that school.”
Draper’s memories of growing up in a segregated Martinsville are mostly of the community and how adults and other authority figures empowered young people.
“We grew up in families that refused to allow us to even consider the concept of inferiority… we were always taught to believe that we could make a difference, make a change,” she said.
The teachers and staff at East Martinsville “sabotaged any systemic effort to keep us down or keep us back” and were universally admired by parents, students, and community members. “We thought they were marvelous people,” she said.
The successes of the former students at the school are a testament to the values learned during their time there.
Bishop Joe Gravely, the keynote speaker during the unveiling ceremony, became the first Black male nurse at Memorial Hospital in 1975, and then became the first male nursing instructor in Virginia, teaching for nearly 30 years at what is now Patrick & Henry Community College.
Leon Tyler Hairston earned an undergraduate degree in history and political science from Virginia State University (formerly College), then went on to earn two master’s degrees, one in History and one in Education Administration and Supervision from the University of Virginia and Virginia State University. He taught thousands of students over the course of his career and served as principal of several schools.
Oris Carter Cross received her Ph.D. from Ohio State University and taught both in public schools and universities, including the University of California, Otterbein College, and her alma mater. She published her autobiography, “The Lord Laid His Hands on Me,” in 2011.
Dr. James “Dooney” Hairston spent four years in the Army before earning his Ph.D. from the University of Northern Colorado. He served as president of Allen University, a historically Black university in Columbia, South Carolina before taking a job as a professor in South Carolina State University’s School of Business.
Carlton Stockton attended graduate school at Clark Atlanta, Columbia, and Harvard. His career accomplishments include serving as Vice President for Public Policy at the communications company MCI and his inclusion in “Who’s Who Among African Americans” in 1998.
Other former students became college deans, playwrights, executives, and lawyers, and activists. One, Bill Geter, even marched in Selma, Alabama on Black Sunday.
Draper has been a tireless force on her quest to preserve the memory of the school. She spent years conducting research, collecting news articles, obituaries, and photographs in a thick, three-ring binder, a tome full of proud legacies of her fellow graduates.
She, too, pursued a career in education. After earning her master’s in education from Duke University and another in English from the University of Richmond, she taught in Richmond schools and at Virginia Commonwealth University. She served as the Director of the Literacy Incentive Program for the State Department of Corrections, working with Gov. Gerald Baliles.
She attributed those accomplishments and more to the support and encouragement from her early years in Martinsville and the days she sat in the classrooms of East Martinsville Elementary, formerly the Dry Bridge School, the sun shining through the long windows, learning from those whose legacy and dedication to education is now enshrined in a historical marker, unveiled last Saturday beneath a clear, blue autumn sky.