It all happened during the bitter days of segregation, yet when Mickey Hickman walks through his old playground — now bare grass and cracked asphalt — it’s the happy voices that echo in his mind.
Behind Calfee Training School, on Corbin-Harmon Drive in Pulaski, Hickman can see — in his mind’s eye — a basketball goal nailed to a pole, surrounded by children. And, he can see their one and only ball — it was rubber, they did not have a real basketball — bouncing into the swift waters of Tract Fork.
“The whole playground area was mobilized to rescue that basketball,” said Hickman. “And we had tree branches and rocks strategically placed, when the creek was low, where some of our more skilled — we called them creek walkers — to hop out there on those rocks and not get wet and save the ball.”
Inside, walking through halls scattered with bits of pink insulation, Hickman points to his old classrooms, and hears the voices of his teachers, Miss Anderson, Miss Johnson, Miss Venable, Miss Washington.
In his first grade classroom, he sits at a table and thinks back to 1955 and Miss Washington passing out the Dick and Jane books. Presenting an idealized, white, middle-class family, still, they helped spark a love of reading and learning that led to a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and a doctorate and a career in education.
“I could do school, I was blessed that way,” Hickman said. “And so I loved each day of school, All the teachers were wonderful. We didn’t have much contention, I didn’t see many fights. I’m not saying it was perfect, but the kids got along, and lunchtime was great.”
While Hickman sees the past, he also sees the future.
Like the students who once mobilized to save a ball from floating down the creek, the Pulaski community is mobilizing to save Calfee Training School. If their plans bear fruit, the former school for Black children will become Calfee Community & Cultural Center, housing a day-care center, a kitchen, a museum, a computer lab, an outdoor playspace and an events room.
And, it won’t be just for one race or color. It will be for everyone.
Jill Williams, Calfee’s acting co-executive director, grew up in Pulaski before leaving for a career in nonprofit work.
“What brought me back was, my husband and I both had great jobs in New York,” Williams said. “But they didn’t allow us to be the types of parents we wanted to be. I had to travel a lot, he had to work really, really long hours. My husband called me up one day and said, ‘I think I’m gonna put in my two week notice.’ I said, ‘OK, but we’re going to have to move back to Pulaski, at least for a while, because we can’t afford to stay in Brooklyn.'”
A search for child care led her to Calfee.
NAACP chairman remembers Calfee
Leon Russell attended Calfee School from first grade through seventh, starting in 1956. Retired from a career in human rights in Florida, he was elected chairman of the NAACP’s national board in 2017. “I remember teachers and classmates,” he wrote in an email to Cardinal News. “I remember Maydays and the deep yellow/orange cornbread made by Ms. Lena Huckstep in the cafeteria. I recall a learning environment where teachers cared and where expectations were high. I also recall the apprehension and expectations that were caused by the efforts to integrate schools.”
Only later did he fully appreciate the work of Chauncey Harmon and other Pulaski litigants in the fight
for desegregated schools.
“Harmon’s efforts probably had an indirect influence in directing my path and putting me in the position
that I currently hold. I was unaware that my maternal grandfather, Henry Dyer, was a plaintiff in Dr.
Harmon’s lawsuit and the fact that it explained my family engagement in the NAACP helps me understand my involvement in the Association and how I have ended up now serving as Chairman of the
National Board of Directors of the NAACP.
“I am the product of advocates and I continue that role at the highest level of the organization that Dr.
Harmon reached out to for assistance those many years ago. What goes around comes around.”
“My child’s preschool was closing. We are a child care desert here in Pulaski County. But we have a lot of empty buildings in Pulaski. So my husband and I started looking at different empty buildings. And in the course of that, somebody pointed us to the Calfee school.”
In 2018, she got a tour of the building from Marylen Harmon, educator and daughter of former Calfee principal Chauncey Harmon. “And we learned that there were alumni who all along since 1966, had been wanting to restore that building and remember the history associated with it.”
She also learned that people had been working on the childcare issue as well, but neither project had gotten very far. Community discussions led to the idea of restoring Calfee as child care center.
The latest renovation estimate is $4 million. Calfee already has a $1.5 million Community Development Block Grant to support the child care center, and a half-million-dollar grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the kitchen and event center. Historic tax credits may bring in “somewhere between 1 and 2 million, probably closer to 1 once all the expenses are paid,” Williams said. Almost $700,000 has been donated by businesses, individuals and foundations.
The town of Pulaski and the county of Pulaski have each pledged $100,000. “Those grants are contingent on us being awarded an Economic Development Administration grant,” Williams said. “We had to have a 20% local match for a million-dollar grant. So they gave us what we needed for that local match. If that grant doesn’t come through, they are under no obligation to give us the funds.”
Williams has been told that the EDA decision might be made in late February. “Actually we’re probably going to start construction even if it doesn’t come in. We will have a contractor work specifically on the child care center, on the kitchen, and then on the buildingwide things, like a new roof, HVAC systems and that sort of stuff. And then once the other funding comes in, we’ll do the rest of the building.”
Calfee Training School was erected in 1939, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose name appears on a metal plaque affixed to the brick wall. The 15,000-square-foot building is owned by the Pulaski Redevelopment and Housing Authority. The street, formerly Magnox Drive, was renamed Corbin-Harmon Drive in honor of physician Dr. Percy Corbin and educator Chauncey Harmon, both of whom took courageous stands against Jim Crow.
“The school holds a significant but little-known place in US history,” the Calfee website says. “A young man by the name of Chauncey Depew Harmon, a former student, teacher, and principal of the Calfee Training School agreed to serve as a plaintiff in the first legal effort for equalization of facilities and faculty pay in Virginia. Thurgood Marshall, Spottswood Robinson, Oliver Hill and other prominent attorneys were involved in the lawsuit that grew out of this effort. Corbin et al. v. County School Board of Pulaski County Va (1949) ended up being one of six successful cases led by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund that paved the way for the groundbreaking Brown vs. Board of Education (1954).”
Progress came at a price. Harmon’s advocacy cost him his principal’s job when he was dismissed by the school board.
Binti Villinger, acting co-executive director along with Williams, grew up in West Virginia, but her mother attended Calfee. Villinger played on the Calfee grounds during childhood visits to Pulaski.
“The story of the building and my connection to it, are really powerful to me,” she said. Villinger wants to “share the history of the school and so many of the great stories of courage that we’ve heard about, folks that were involved in lawsuits that were challenging the Pulaski County Schools, because faculty weren’t getting paid as much as white faculty.
“At a time in the 1930s, going up through the 1950s, to be an African American in this area, and be willing to kind of put your family and yourself on the line to stand up for what you believe was right, to stand up for the education of your children, I mean, that’s something that really means a lot to me.”
The very name of the school, Calfee Training School, indicates low expectations. “It’s like you train animals,” Hickman said. “In those days, they were going to keep us behind because of segregation. So we were born to be relegated to manual labor type jobs, or domestic jobs and things like that for the women.”
In Hickman’s parents’ generation, ninth grade was the end of public education for Black students. Things were changing as Mickey Hickman rose through the grades. Calfee closed in 1966 as desegregation moved forward. Hickman continued his education at Christiansburg Institute, Pulaski County High School, Wytheville Community College and VPI (Virginia Polytechnic Institute, now Virginia Tech). At VPI he majored in political science and history. Later he earned a master’s degree at Radford University and a doctorate in education at Virginia Tech.
His working career was spent in Pulaski schools, where he taught history, government and geography, and served as an assistant principal and assistant coach. Now retired, Hickman, 73, is the president of the nonprofit Calfee Community & Cultural Center.
Dave Clark is a member of the Calfee board and former mayor of Pulaski. He had lived in Pulaski nearly six decades before hearing about Calfee’s national significance in the desegregation movement, because white people did not talk about it.
“The first time I heard that story, was standing in the building at Calfee, when I was 59 years old,” he said. Pulaski “was actually a major part of our country trying to become a better place for everyone, instead of just for white people.”
“This is just going to be a perfect asset to give back to the community,” Hickman said. “And what I like is the phoenix story. While this school was built in a negative time, in a negative era with segregation … little feet will be back in the school again, but it’ll be all shades, different colors of little kids. It’ll serve everyone. And maybe people that never stepped foot on this property will have reason to come here now, whether it be the lab or the kitchen or the event center. So to me that’s a wonderful story, and I’m completely subscribed to it because I love it.”
Calfee Community & Cultural Center’s 2023 Benefit Gala, featuring live music, a buffet and a silent auction, will be held Feb. 25 at Omni Place Event Center, 7331-B Lee Highway, Fairlawn. Doors open 6 p.m. Tickets are $60 per person and can be purchased online at calfeeccc.org/events.