At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were no public high schools for black children in Henry County. The elementary schools were poorly equipped and lacked the full financial support of communities that white schools received. Almost 40% of Martinsville's black population was illiterate, compared to just over 10% of whites.
In October 1900, an African-American minister named James H. Thomas rallied Martinsville's black community to start a private school under the auspices of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). At first, Thomas held classes in the basement of the Fayette Street Christian Church, where he was also the minister. By the end of its first year, the Martinsville Christian Institute boasted 34 students and a new location on Massey Street, in a renovated former school called the Booker House.
In 1906, The Christian Women's Board of Missions, a white missionary arm of the Disciples of Christ, donated money for a new two-story frame building adjacent to the Booker House. Named Smith Hall in honor of a Christian Church official, the 18-room building was a thoroughly black enterprise: black carpenters constructed the building, black parents contributed the funds to supply and furnish it, and the school was staffed exclusively with black teachers and administrators.
Unlike the industrial training schools that came to dominate black education in the South, the Institute was a bastion of classical learning. Vocational courses like sewing and farming — the focus of much of the school's denominational funding— took a back seat to a liberal arts curriculum that included Latin and biology. At the time, a debate over black education was raging between Booker T. Washington, who advocated training blacks for agricultural or industrial jobs, and historian W.E.B. Dubois, who encouraged the "talented tenth" of African Americans to pursue academic educations.
Thomas, who put himself through college by working in brickyards and tobacco factories, skillfully steered a middle path for the Institute, which by 1920 had more than 170 students. In 1923, the renamed Piedmont Christian Institute moved again, to a three-story brick building at Fayette and Second Streets that boasted a library, laboratory, and chapel. The Christian Women's Board of Missions again provided funding, but this time the local community contributed 20% of the $50,000 cost.
In the fields surrounding the school, male students raised peanuts, sugar cane, and sweet potatoes, which the female students cooked or canned. But the imposing design of the building illustrated the school's serious academic purpose. Tall white columns flanked the entryway, and a cupola crowned the roof's visible expressions of the black community's pride in providing an education for its children.
Piedmont Christian Institute operated until 1933, when Thomas retired. In 1934, the county school board bought the building and established the Henry County Training School, an industrial public high school for African Americans. The building was destroyed by fire on April 14, 1948.
Formerly located at the corner of Fayette and Second Streets.
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Formerly at the corner of Fayette and Second Street