If you drove through Danville’s Schoolfield District today, you’d see the large construction site where the Caesars Virginia resort will stand in 2024, as well as the semi-permanent tent that houses the temporary Danville Casino.
You’d also see neighborhoods that are home to 1,400 of Danville’s residents. And you’d see the few surviving buildings that were once part of the city’s textile powerhouse, Dan River Mills.
But decades ago, Schoolfield looked very different. In addition to the Dan River buildings, the district was home to the Schoolfield mill village, where the company’s white employees and their families lived.
Initially independent from the city of Danville, the Schoolfield village once had its own stores, churches and schools.
Despite its annexation to the city in 1951 and its modern-day rebirth, the Schoolfield District’s history remains inseparable from Dan River Mills.
Local historian Ina Dixon is working on an on-site public exhibit, with a digital component to make sure that both the new and the old are considered together in Schoolfield.
“It’s not good to just look back, and it’s not good to just look forward,” Dixon said. “We need to bridge the gap there.”
Earlier this year, Dixon was awarded the Public Humanities Fellowship from Virginia Humanities to work on this project, which she calls “A Dan River Fabric: The Life and Legacy of the Schoolfield Community.”
Fellows receive a $15,000 stipend to support their work, as well as access to the archives of both the Library of Virginia and the University of Virginia, where Virginia Humanities is based.
According to Dixon’s fellowship application, the project “offers a moment of pause during this rush of revitalization, inviting the public to reflect on the legacy of Schoolfield and its future through artifacts and stories of the past.”
This reflection may be complicated, Dixon said, because Dan River Mills had both positive and negative influences on Danville.
While the mill was a major driver for the city’s economy, Dan River Mills’ financial goals were accompanied by deplorable social and racial goals, according to Dixon.
All of these components deserve to be remembered together, she said.
“The whole reason I’m doing this is so that the Schoolfield story gets told,” Dixon said. “Getting that out there and ensuring that Schoolfield can stand on its own and not get overwhelmed with Caesars.”
A good place to begin the Schoolfield story is in the late 19th century, when Dan River Mills opened its doors.
The 1880s: Danville and the Readjuster Party
Dan River Mills began operations in 1882, when the Readjuster Party had a strong political presence in Danville.
The Readjuster Party — a biracial political party formed at the state level in Virginia — was established in the late 1870s, during an unstable period of time after Reconstruction.
Encyclopedia Virginia calls the party “the shortest-lived and most radical reforming political party in Virginia’s history.”
Though they gained power because of controversy around how to repay the millions in state debt accrued before the Civil War, the Readjusters also promoted “egalitarian thinking,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia.
The party abolished the poll tax and the use of the whipping post.
Without the tax as a prerequisite to vote, a majority Black city council was elected in Danville in the 1880s — almost a century before the civil rights movement.
“You see a population that was enslaved just 15 years earlier, and they’re starting to rise, politically, socially and economically,” said Karice Luck-Brimmer, a Black historian in Danville. “There were Black and brown businesses all up and down Main Street.”
This was not unique to Danville, Luck-Brimmer said, although many people are unaware that Black communities made these strides before the 1960s.
Though Luck-Brimmer’s area of expertise is Danville, “from talking to other scholars around the country, it’s an all-American story,” she said. “This happened everywhere.”
The Readjuster Party appealed to both white and Black working-class people. But this “alienated many white voters and political leaders who opposed the participation of poor and Black men in politics,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia. “That raised fears of racial equality, or so-called Black domination.”
This was certainly the case in Danville in the late 1800s, Dixon said, especially because of the city’s thriving tobacco industry, which still relied heavily on Black labor. The city’s business sector was also dominated by Black business owners and merchants, she said.
“You can imagine white merchants were livid because they see this as business being taken away from them,” Dixon said. “There’s nothing for their ‘poor white brethren’ to do but create a whole other industry to solve that problem.”
Thus, the textile industry was born in Danville, Dixon argues, almost exclusively employing white workers. This is the opposite of the tobacco industry, Luck-Brimmer added, which was also present in Danville and continued to employ mostly Black laborers after slavery was abolished.
The position Dixon takes in her 2021 dissertation on the subject is that the men who started Dan River Mills saw the city’s Black economic success as a threat to white social dominance.
“By importing white workers from the farms of Appalachia and rural Virginia, the textile industry was a mechanism for diluting Danville’s Black majority with an influx of white residents,” her dissertation reads.
A lot of the Dan River employees were recruited from coal mines, Luck-Brimmer said.
“[Dan River Mills] went to the hills, the mountain, anywhere they could find poor whites, so to speak, who were almost living like sharecroppers,” she said. “They said, ‘We’ll provide housing, babysitting services, you’ll have everything you need within this community.’ That was a come-up for those people.”
These jobs could’ve helped the unemployed Black population that was already in Danville, she added.
This eventually led to a white majority population in a city that once had a Black majority, and the subsequent ousting of the Readjuster party in 1883, just a year after Dan River Mills opened, according to Dixon.
The disappearance of the Readjuster Party in the city also had to do with the Danville Riot of the same year, a fatal, racially motivated street fight that was blamed on Black participants.
And by 1903, the all-white Schoolfield mill village had been established.
The 1900s: Dan River’s Schoolfield mill village
The mill village was named after three of the six founding members of Dan River Mills, the Schoolfield brothers.
“By the 1920s, this company town — complete with a school, churches, stores, a theatre, and other recreational facilities — was home to over 4,500 residents, mostly mill employees and their families, living in some 800 rental houses,” reads a historical marker, erected in 1988, at the intersection of West Main Street and Baltimore Avenue.
There were about 834 residential units in the mill village, according to the city’s Schoolfield District Master Plan. The single-story homes, which were built between 1903 and 1909, were typically around 900 to 1,200 square feet and included two bedrooms and one bathroom.
Despite major strikes over wages in 1930 and 1951, which both ended in the company’s favor, Schoolfield remained a company village until its annexation by the city, which coincided with the second strike.
And like most of the factory workers at Dan River during this time, the residents of the village were exclusively white.
The mill did employ Black people — just not right away.
Phone books used to list not only a resident’s name and phone number, but also their race and occupation, said Robin Marcato, executive director of the Danville Historical Society, which has many of these books in its collection.
These records show evidence of Black people working in janitorial roles at Dan River Mills.
“Around the 1940s, [Dan River] did hire a few Black people here and there, but they were doing the stuff that no one wanted to do,” Luck-Brimmer said. “It wasn’t until 1969, when Julius Adams sued Dan River Mills for discrimination, that they started hiring Black people” for regular factory positions.
Adams was also a leader of Danville’s civil rights movement of 1963.
Despite the mill’s exclusive hiring, it was a powerful economic engine for the city. And despite the village’s segregation, people really enjoyed living in Schoolfield, Dixon said.
“The Schoolfield story is like anything else in Danville,” she said. “Even with Bloody Monday and the horrific things that went on, people in Danville, both Black and white, really love their neighborhoods.”
This was something Dixon learned through oral histories she’s collected, she said.
“People loved growing up in Schoolfield,” Dixon said. “How do you balance that experience with a more contextual understanding of how the neighborhood got developed?”
One goal of her project is to balance this complex history, she said.
Today: Dixon’s project and plans for Schoolfield’s revitalization
The city of Danville published its Schoolfield District Master Plan in June 2023 with a goal to “leverage the development of a casino at the Dan River Mills site” as well as “preserve the heritage and history” of the district.
The plan includes renovating historic structures that remain in the Schoolfield District, creating public amenities and improving roadways to accommodate pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
Separate from the city’s plan, but with a similar goal to preserve the district’s history while embracing its future, is Dixon’s project.
The physical component of “A Dan River Fabric” will be located in Schoolfield. Though it will include information about the district’s history, it won’t be a museum, she said.
“It probably won’t even look like a museum,” Dixon said. “It’ll look like decorative art and like interior design, and it will blend with the branding and the sort of vibe, for lack of a better word, of the buildings that are going to be renovated there.”
Four Schoolfield District buildings are scheduled to be renovated by Ed Walker, a Roanoke-based developer and Dixon’s husband. Though Dixon’s exhibit will eventually be showcased in these buildings, the renovations themselves are separate from her project.
A 1903 company store will be renovated into commercial space; the 1903 former Dan River Executive Office Building will become a boutique hotel; the 1917 Welfare Building will be transformed into a wellness and co-working space; and a 1930 canteen building will be renovated into a diner-style restaurant.
“Wherever you are in Schoolfield, you’ll see the Schoolfield history,” Dixon said.
The exhibit itself will include artifacts from the former Schoolfield Museum and Cultural Center, which closed in 2019 because operating costs for the 100-plus-year-old building were too high.
Much of the museum’s collection has been housed at the Danville Fine Arts and History Museum since then.
Dixon’s exhibit will include artifacts from this collection, alongside stories gathered from people who worked at Dan River and lived in the mill village.
It’s especially important to house the exhibit in these remaining mill buildings, Dixon said, because they are some of the last physical structures that belonged to Dan River.
Since Dan River Mills shut down in 2006, its buildings have been sold off, destroyed by arson, torn down to build a CVS Pharmacy, and even salvaged for bricks.
“Schoolfield has suffered from the destruction of its history and the devastation of having its story as silent as the crushed bricks of its former mills,” says Dixon’s fellowship application, adding that this exhibit will “reanimate” the remaining buildings.
The fellowship “was designed to help writers, community historians and scholars uncover stories that help Virginians better understand who we all are,” said Matthew Gibson, executive director at Virginia Humanities.
The organization has awarded 13 grants, totaling almost $72,000, to projects in or around Danville since 1998.
Virginia Humanities takes the public nature of the Public Humanities Fellowship seriously, Gibson added. “Each project is required to engage local communities in meaningful ways,” he said.
Dixon’s public engagement component is tied to the digital portion of her project. She plans to hold “history harvests” — events that create a digital archive of historical artifacts and stories gathered from communities themselves.
“With history harvests, instead of going to the archives to research a story, you go to the people,” Dixon said. “They bring you their stories and we record oral histories at these events.”
And if a member of the community brings a physical artifact from their time at the mill, like a tool or piece of fabric, Dixon can take photos and notes about the artifact and put it in the digital archive.
“Then you have an archive of things that come straight from the community, and I think that’s a neat way to balance out the story,” she said. “There’s the historical context, but there’s also the lived experience.”
Dixon has organized history harvests for other projects in the past but plans to hold more this fall for the Schoolfield project.
The Public Humanities Fellowship is a four-month program. Dixon’s fellowship is officially slated for September through December, though she anticipates continuing her work after that deadline.
“By December, I’m not going to have the exhibit done, but by that point there will be a narrative, decisions about what artifacts we’re going to use and the prototype of the website,” Dixon said.
She expects to complete the project in tandem with the redevelopment of the buildings in Schoolfield, she said, though there’s no official timeline for those projects.
Dixon said that even though she was the fellowship recipient, this project merely builds on work that has already been done by local historians and the former Schoolfield Museum staff.
“This is an offering of mine to something that’s already going on,” she said. “The real work has already been done, I’m just building on what they’ve done.”