Charles Miller, who serves on the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, grew up attending a segregated school for Black students in Mount Airy during the late 1950s and through the 1960s.
He still remembers being in the third or fourth grade, attending an old wooden school where a picture of George Washington Carver hung high.
“I didn’t know quite exactly who he was, not entirely like I did after years of studying, but we as children knew enough to know that … he was a person that we should be respectful of," Miller said.
He remembers seeing the face of Booker T. Washington on the 50-cent piece, one of which he still has and treasures today. The thought of attending the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which Washington founded, crossed his mind, but concerns about his own safety deterred him from venturing that far south.
“I didn’t actually think about going that far into the south, especially Alabama," he said.
After more than a year of "ruminating" and consideration, Miller is now actively developing the details and seeking support for his plan to erect a monument to those two well-known African Americans, as well as Carter Woodson, a prominent African American historian, on Main Street in downtown Chatham.
Even as national attention has been placed on removing Confederate monuments, Miller, the lone African American on the board of supervisors, has not heard or made any efforts to remove the Confederate war memorial in the downtown, but is instead looking to add another monument that "stimulate people ... to see us as Black Americans in a positive light and that we have contributed well to the fabric of this country, this state."
"I’m about making friends and trying to bring about a more cooperative and cohesive atmosphere in this county and region where we live," he said.
This project for new monuments comes amid national unrest surrounding racial injustice, which has led to calls for the removal of Confederate flags and statues. During a Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday night, Kell Stone, the pastor of Gospel Tabernacle Outreach Center in Gretna who led peaceful protests against racial injustice in Chatham and Gretna in June, asked the board of supervisors to seriously consider and explain the history that the Confederate flags that fly on highways in the county and the Confederate war memorial in downtown Chatham.
“As we all can agree, signs, symbols and labels speaks to who we are," he said.
Miller has been reaching out to community members about the project, which he estimates will cost roughly $100,000, to get input on the design and find financial support. For now, Miller is imagining that the monument to the three men, which will contain pictures and information about them, be roughly 20 feet long by 12-feet wide.
While none of these three men were from Pittsylvania County, Miller believes that all of them played an important role in the locality's history. Booker T. Washington, who was born in neighboring Franklin County, made a major impact through his contributions to the education of African American students like Miller.
Many schools for African American students in Pittsylvania County were founded through the Rosenwald fund, a philanthropy effort from Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee Institute and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to provide high-quality public education for African American children in the rural South during segregation. According to a survey done by Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Virginia history, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, eight of those schools in Pittsylvania County are still standing.
The other two men that Miller hopes to honor with his monument are George Washington Carver and Carter Woodson. Carver, a prominent scientist and professor at the Tuskegee Institute, made a wide range of contributions to agricultural practices and helped the cotton industry. Miller said that his work allowed Dan River Mills, which was one of the largest cotton mills in the country at the height of its power, rise to the prominence that it did.
“Thousands of people ... were employed, got paychecks, raised their families, educated their children, with paychecks from Dan River Mills," Miller said.
Carter Woodson is a prominent historian who was one of the first to study African American history.
Ben Davenport, owner of Davenport Energy and prominent businessman in the community, said that a project like this wasn't on his radar, but he has agreed to help Miller with the project, "financially and otherwise."
“I like to be inclusive of our population," Davenport said. "We have an excellent racial mix of population in Danville and Pittsylvania County, and it seems appropriate to me."
Miller is not seeking any public funding for the project. He already has a location on Main Street that "hopefully that will become available when we make the formal request," but has a backup spot where the landowner has already agreed to sell if need be.
"What I’m trying to do is this: as a native Pittsylvania person, Virginian and American, I want to do what I can to bring about a layer of recognition of some of the contributions that have been made by my people, African Americans," Miller said.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.
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