Project works to bring new life to Pulaski school

Calfee Training School educated African-American children during segregation

PULASKI, Va. – Excitement continues to grow in Pulaski for a project to revitalize an abandoned school that educated African-American children during segregation.

The Calfee Training School originally opened in 1894, but burned down 44 years later. The community rebuilt and reopened the school, but it has sat abandoned in recent years.

"A lot of history from that school has been hidden," said Janet Johnson, a Calfee alumni. "All these years people did not realize how much history is there."

Johnson is a Pulaski native who spent all of her elementary school years at Calfee. She said the school, especially the teachers, created a sense of community.

"We knew our teachers from our church and our families before we even started school, so that made it great."

Lane Penn, a Calfee alumni and member of Pulaski's town council, said Calfee's teachers set a high bar of excellence and success.

"(There's) nobody that went to school there that didn't learn," Penn said.

Johnson and Penn are among the Calfee alumni, family and community members involved with the Calfee Training School Project, which is working to renovate the school for future use and to honor its past. The vision includes a permanent museum in the building to honor the Calfee legacy and a community center.

"I think a lot of people like myself will be very excited to see it back open, being used for a good purpose," Penn said. 

A major part of the vision includes a child care facility operated by the YMCA.

"Pulaski County is known as a child care desert in the New River Valley," said Allison Hunter, executive director of the YMCA of Pulaski County.

She said the YMCA had been discussing options for renovating older buildings to expand their child care space, and the possibility of expanding to the Calfee Training School is an ideal option.

"I think that the history of it makes sense to us too, to be there with our child care center," Hunter said. "At the same time, I think we're meeting a critical need for Pulaski County and I think that's first and foremost for the Y."

The project will also include interviewing Calfee alumni to help create a theatrical production based on the school's history.

"Every time I come together for a meeting or meet someone new it's just so much knowledge about the history and experience that has happened at Calfee," said Kendall Payne, artistic director of Adaire Theatre and the son of a Calfee graduate. Payne is helping to create the production.

"These are like your neighbors' stories, your relatives' stories and that's not necessarily something you read in your history book."  

The school's history and memorabilia are currently on display at the Raymond F. Ratcliffe Memorial Transportation Museum in Pulaski through the end of February. The exhibit includes class pictures, a school newsletter, a yearbook and other artifacts.

Virginia Humanities, the state humanities council, awarded the project a $10,000 grant.

Johnson said it is exciting to see the building coming back to life.

"I could actually visualize little children up and down the hallways, the laughter, the fun that children have at that age, so I am so excited that we're about to embark on this endeavor," she said.  

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