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‘A vision for this nation that we have yet to attain’— historian to speak about Juneteenth

Back view outside the Wilderness Road Museum in Pulaski County.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
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Back view outside the Wilderness Road Museum in Pulaski County.

During the 1950s and 60s, Mickey Hickman attended the Calfee School, a historically Black school in Pulaski. Now Hickman is one of the people behind an effort to turn the school into a community center.

“I have this project here, it’s something near and dear to my heart. I think it speaks to the goodness of people.”

He said he feels the past few years, with the murder of George Floyd and the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol, have shown just how divided many people in America are. “These are tense and contentious times that we live in.”

But learning about our history, he said, can help unify people. That’s partly why his group, the Calfee Community & Cultural Center, is partnering with the Wilderness Road Regional Museum and the Pulaski County Library System on a Juneteenth celebration to commemorate the freedom of African Americans from slavery.

The Calfee School was a historically Black school in Pulaski during segregation. The building is being renovated by the Calfee Community & Cultural Center, to turn the former school into a community center, with a childcare center, a technology lab and a commercial kitchen.
Courtesy Calfee Community & Cultural Center
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The Calfee School was a historically Black school in Pulaski during segregation. The building is being renovated by the Calfee Community & Cultural Center, to turn the former school into a community center, with a childcare center, a technology lab and a commercial kitchen.

It’s a history which hasn’t always been told accurately. “I grew up hearing, ‘well in southwest Virginia, slavery was more benign. It was a gentler institution.’ That’s just bunk,” said Tal Stanley, a professor at Emory and Henry College who will be speaking at the event. “We should never ever allow us the understanding that there was anything humane about it or gentle.”

Stanley grew up in Pulaski County and has researched the history of the area, including stories of people who were enslaved. “And I think about Juneteenth, and I think about those people that ran away from here to join the federal troops and risk their lives, not just because of what they were against, because that was pretty clear, but what they were for. [Theirs] was a vision for this nation that we have yet to attain.”

Stanley has also learned that there were at least three free Black people in Pulaski County who made the tough decision to re-enslave themselves, in order to stay with their families.

Laws at the time prohibited a free person of color from staying in Virginia for more than a year, unless approved to do so by the county justices. Evidence suggests that in Pulaski County, the sheriff was very strict about enforcing the Virginia slave code, said Stanley.

“I just can’t help but be deeply moved by the depth of love and commitment that would lead someone to say I will risk this rather than have my family severed,” Stanley said. “And those people’s lives are as much a part of this landscape as my ancestors’ lives. And it seems to me that we need the work of empathy to begin to think through those things.”

Tal Stanley, professor of Civic Innovation and Resident Scholar for the Citizenship of Place at Emory & Henry College.
Courtesy Emory and Henry College
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Tal Stanley, professor of Civic Innovation and Resident Scholar for the Citizenship of Place at Emory & Henry College.

Stanley will be one of the featured speakers at a Juneteenth event on Sunday, at the Wilderness Road Museum in Newbern 2-5 pm. The event is cosponsored by Calfee Community & Cultural Center, the Wilderness Road Regional Museum and the Pulaski County Library System, and is one of several events across Virginia this weekend, marking 157 years after implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation.