NAACP banquet draws record crowd

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By John Barnhart

    A record turnout for the Freedom Fund Banquet, held each year by the Bedford Branch of the NAACP, filled the Bedford Columns Event Center to its full capacity Saturday night. The banquet is held each year to raise money for scholarships and the Bedford Branch’s community activities.


    Dr. Tracy Richardson was the keynote speaker. Dr. Richardson, a Goode native and Jefferson Forest High School graduate, became principal of E. C. Glass High School this year.
    Dr. Richardson noted that this is a sign of how things have changed.
    “Fifty years ago I could not have been the principal of E. C. Glass High School,” she said. “Fifty years ago I could not have been a teacher at E. C. Glass High School. Fifty years ago I could not have been a student at E. C. Glass High School.”
    That’s because Virginia’s public schools were once segregated by race and this served as the lead-in to Dr. Richardson’s talk on Susie Gibson High School. Dr. Richarson, who has a bachelor’s degree in history, has done a study of the school. Her research included interviews with former faculty and graduates of the school. She also studied school board minutes and researched articles from the 1950s and 1960s in the Bedford Bulletin.
    Dr. Richardson said that the first slaves arrived in Bedford County in 1774. By 1860, there were 10,000 slaves in the county, comprising a third of the local population.
    After slavery was abolished, schools for black students were set up in Virginia and, according to her research, the building that now houses Bedford Columns served as a school for blacks from 1893 to 1910.
    The Bedford Training School was built in 1930 and expanded in 1939. That building now serves as the school division’s central office.
    “This was the only brick school for blacks in Bedford County,” Dr. Richardson said.
    Later others were built. Otter River Elementary School and Body Camp Elementary School were originally built as segregated black schools.
    Dr. Richardson said that many improvements in Virginia’s segregated schools came after successful NAACP lawsuits in the 1930s and 1940s. One required equal pay for black teachers. Others required equal facilities and equal transportation.
    Susie Gibson High School was built in 1954 and replaced Bedford Training Center. It was a 35,000-square-foot school with a gymnasium, a cafeteria and a library. It originally had 10 classrooms, later expanded with additional classrooms and an auditorium, and housed eighth through 12th grade. Peyton Otey was one of the faculty members.
    Dr. Richardson said that most of the elementary schools the students came from were one- and two-room schools with outhouses and wood-fired heating stoves, rather than central heating.
    The school was named in honor of Susie Gibson, a long-time teacher and later Jeans Teacher in Bedford County. The Jeans Teacher was the liaison between the school board and the black community. Gibson worked directly for the superintendent of schools and supervised the black schools.
    Dr. Richardson talked to a number of Susie Gibson High School alumni. Louise Bonds Nelms, who worked at the Bedford Museum prior to her retirement, was in the first graduating class from Susie Gibson. Another local resident, Roy Bryant, remembered having to borrow bleachers from Liberty High School, back in the ‘60s. for games. Verna Bryant recalled a time when students drove school buses.
    “We didn’t write on the walls,” Robbert Harris told Dr. Richardson, describing the students’ pride in the school. “We didn’t tear it up, we took care of it.”
    The high school had only one principal during its 16 years of operation. That was John I. Jones.
    “He knew more of your family than you did,” Dr. Richardson said that alumni told her. “People talked of the care and guidance from Mr. Jones and his staff.”
    Susie Gibson High School had 43 students in its first graduating class and 82 in its last class, in 1970. The school got its first white teachers in 1968, but closed in 1970.
    “The Civil Rights Act was the main thing that caused the school to close,” Dr. Richardson said.
    She said that Bedford County had to fully integrate its schools by 1970. The county asked that full integration be delayed until Jefferson Forest High School could be completed. That was denied and Liberty High School had 1,600 students in 1970.
    “Staunton River was also very, very crowded,” she said.
    The high school is now Bedford Science and Technology Center. Dr. Richardson said that a number of people were upset when Susie Gibson’s name was taken down from the school. The name, in large metal letters, is now part of a display on the school at the Bedford Museum.
    Dr. Richardson’s research also turned up a fact illustrating the environment that black people in Bedford County lived in half-a-century ago. She said that Bedford once served as the headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan.
    There were Klan rallies and cross burnings in the area.