Public invited to Commemorate 50 Years of Education March 27 at CAMS

Commemorating 50 Years of Education—that’s the theme of this Saturday’s celebration at what is now Central Academy Middle School (CAMS).

The theme fits because CAMS has been a middle school for just 14 years—but it’s been a center of education since it opened in the fall of 1959 when both Lord Botetourt High School and James River High School accepted their first students.

The public is invited to join the activities between 1 and 4 p.m. March 27. There will be a formal ceremony honoring the four different “eras of education” that have been housed in the same building (several times updated) on Poor Farm Road just on the outskirts of Fincastle.

Both high schools have been celebrating their 50th anniversaries this school year, and Central Academy’s staff and alumni decided it was appropriate to commemorate those five decades of education scores of students have received within the school’s classrooms as well.

There will be history displays and tours of the school, plus CAMS Principal Tim McClung hopes the three of principals from each of those “eras of education” will be on hand along with the longest-serving principal when the school was just Central Academy and served as the consolidated school for Botetourt’s African-American students. The latter is Robert Stokes, who was principal from 1963-66. He followed William L. Johns Sr. and Charles Conyers.

The other principals are Berney Ferrill, who was the first principal of Botetourt Intermediate; Lew Barlow, who was principal when the school became a middle school, and Chester Adams, who was principal when the middle school years got under way.

While Central Academy itself only dates to the late 1950s, its history has deeper roots—and its early life as a school corresponds to the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

For more than two decades, Botetourt’s African-Americans had been petitioning the Botetourt County School Board to improve what were then the “Colored schools.”

Time after time, groups of African-American community leaders and parents would show up at a School Board meeting and—generally, as reported by The Fincastle Herald—ask for improvements to their school buildings.

Time after time, they were thanked for coming, but nothing happened.

That was until 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court essentially struck down school segregation.

What followed in Virginia was a whirlwind of challenges that prompted “separate but equal” doctrines and “massive resistance.”

Building Central Academy was Botetourt’s attempt to meet the “separate but equal” doctrine because the African-American schools in the county were anything but equal to the white schools.

The issue came to a head in 1957, according to the March 21, 1957 issue of The Fincastle Herald. The paper reported that 65 African-American residents of Botetourt County came before the Board of Supervisors that week and “earnestly but good naturedly told of their deplorably inadequate facilities which they have patiently sought to have improved for 27 years.” They wanted a new school equal to the white schools in the area.

After a couple of attempts at garnering funding through a bond referendum, the supervisors agreed to build Central Academy and at the same time finish a consolidation plan for the white high schools.

Central Academy was built on land bought from an African-American man named Alexander D. Fairfax. The school became Botetourt County’s consolidated black elementary and high school, housing grades 1-12. Central Academy opened in the fall of 1959. All of the former black schools in the county closed at this time.

Central Academy operated as the county’s African-American school until the spring of 1966 when the county desegregated the schools and Central Academy held its last graduation.

That fall, Central Academy became Botetourt Intermediate where all of the county’s seventh graders congregated, in part to make room for the African-American students in the county’s elementary schools.

Three years later, in 1969, the eighth grades were moved from the two high schools to what became known as BI.

BI served as home for all of the county’s seventh and eighth graders for more than a generation.

In the early 1990s, the Botetourt School Board was prompted by state mandate to begin considering using the middle school model for educating sixth-eighth graders. While the mandate was dropped, Botetourt was already on the road to turn BI into one middle school and to build another, what became Read Mountain Middle School, in Cloverdale.

BI became William Clark Middle School in the fall of 1996 when it began serving sixth-eighth graders from the “northern” part of Botetourt. Read Mountain Middle School opened at the same time and that’s where “southern” Botetourt sixth-eighth graders still take classes.

The African-American community was not satisfied with the name given the old BI. William Clark was the name selected by students to honor the explorer who mapped the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis in the early 1800s. Clark married a Fincastle girl upon his return from the expedition.

The County Wide League, which had formed in the 1950s to help get Central Academy built, reformed to get the school renamed.

The issue became a bit political, but on July 1, 2001, William Clark Middle School was renamed Central Academy Middle School, a return to its original name and in recognition of the place the school held in the county’s history.

McClung and the commemoration committee are encouraging former and current students, employees and the general public to attend Saturday’s open house.

There will be slide shows with music, a history presentation by one of the classes and H.W. Scott will serve as master of ceremonies for the formal part of the event.

Those on the commemoration committee include McClung, Assistant Principal Dan Pendleton, Cathy Cronise, Mary Otey, Susan Martin, Jean Toliver, Cathy Johnson, Curtis Brown and Linda Green.

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