Ruth Owens Dillard was a first-grader when she started walking the three-mile trek from her home to Jarvisburg Colored School.
In 1936, she and other African American children had no other way to get to and from school, but that didn’t stop them from pursuing an education and a future for themselves.
Many of the students lived on farms, completing chores before and after the long journey to school. They walked in all kinds of weather, staying home when it was time to pick cotton, beans or cut cabbage and kale.
“At night, we had to get clothes ready for the day,” Dillard said in an interview about her school days. “In the winter months, we had to bring in wood for heating and cooking, bring in water, clean the lamp, and put oil in the lamps and clean the kitchen after dinner. In the morning, we got up and washed and dressed for school. We walked 2 ½ to 3 miles each way.”
Today, you can still listen to former students, such as Ruth Owens Dillard, recount their memories of what it was like to go to the various segregated schools in Currituck County. Their recorded voices and stories play continuously in the Jarvisburg Colored School, known now as the Historic Jarvisburg Colored School Museum.
Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the museum offers a history lesson on the commitment of African Americans in Currituck County who worked together over the decades to create a school and educational opportunities for young children growing up in a segregated society. The museum also represents the continuing dedication of the Jarvisburg and Currituck County communities, which organized fundraising efforts to save and preserve the school so young people can understand what others endured years ago to receive an education.
It was an African American farmer, William Hunt, who helped open the first Jarvisburg Colored School in 1868. Records show he deeded one acre of land to “the Trustees of Powells Point Free School of the Colored People.” Before the year ended, students filled a classroom, ready to learn, in the county’s first colored school.
The building for the Historic Jarvisburg Colored School Museum, located at 7302 Caratoke Highway, dates to 1911. Beautifully restored, thanks to community volunteers and county officials, visitors can trace the history of education for African Americans from the first school in 1868 to 1966 when school officials began consolidating county schools into an integrated system.
“It’s only fitting this school is on the National Registry of Historic Places because of its beginnings,” said William Jarvis III, who volunteers at the museum. Two of his sisters attended school here.
“This school represents the struggle of how hard it was for black students to get an education,” Jarvis said.
One of the exhibits within the museum shows a timeline that explains the various schools that children attended over the years during segregation. Personal stories bring the museum’s rich history alive. Former students went on to become teachers, school administrators, businessmen and trade workers.
Visitors enter the museum from a ramp made of bricks, many of them engraved with the names of former students. Inside, you can see old lesson plans, a teacher’s planner, and the school’s potbelly stove where children would gather before class on chilly winter mornings.
Part of the museum remains a classroom. Worn, but sturdy wooden desks face a flagpole and teacher’s desk. Antique books, collected during the renovation, sit on a back shelf of the classroom. A side room houses the kitchen where students could buy a hot lunch for pennies.
Admission to the museum is free. Private and school tours can be arranged by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Visitors can park adjacent to the museum on the south side of the building. Normal operating hours are Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For more information, call 252-491-2409.