The importance of education has been repeatedly debated and discussed privately, in institutions, and public forums. We are extremely grateful for the foresight of our pioneeres in their efforts to to educate Martinsville and Henry County youth.
Slavery and Jim Crow laws were two primary obstacles affecting the education of Americans of African decent in Martinsville and Henry County, Virginia, as well as other locations in the Southern United States of America. Prior to the Civil War, it was illegal to teach Black people to read and those who broke the laws were severely punished.
Following the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and their “separate but equal” mantra were put in place to discriminate against blacks in education, employment, and other endeavors open to non-blacks in this county. It was within this framework that Martinsville Training School and Martinsville Christian Institute were founded. Althouch public education was available to African Americans in Martinsville and Henry County at the end of the 19th Century, it is unquestionable that it was not on par with the education provided to the status quo. School facilities were poorly equipped and inadequate. Overcrowding was a common occurrence. In Henry County, some schools for Blacks were only one-room buildings where one teacher taught several grade levels. From the early to late 20th Century in Martinsville, education for Blacks was provided at a variety of venue
During the early part of the 20th Century, the Rev. Albert Harris came to Martinsville as a Methodist minister and teacher. He became principal of a free school for Black children operating at Spencer Hall on Spencer Street. Spencer Hall, also known as Martinsville Training School, opened in 1917 for grades one through seven. Through the efforts and persistence of Rev. Harris in contacting the local and state school administrators, a public school for Blacks was established.
In 1922, a new school building located on Smith Road, on land donated by Mrs. Betsy Hairston, relaced Spencer Hall, which was considered a firetrap and had little or no conveniences that would be conducive to learning. This new school was named Martinsville Training School. It was two stories, with eight classrooms, office space, and a basement. The classrooms on the second floor and the basement, which would be for home economics and science laboratories, remained unfinished until 1935. In 1941, an auditorium/gymnasium was added.
Mr. Tobias Grant Pettie was appointed the first principal of Martinsville Training School. The teachers were: Mrs. Edna Eggleston, first grade; Mrs. Lucy Williams Moss, second grade; Mrs. Vina Flood Baldwin, Third grade; Miss Catherine Spencer, fourth grade; Mrs. Mary Early McDaniel, fifth and sixth grades; and Mr. Tobias Grant Pettie, seventh grade.
Earlier, Mr. James H. Thomas founded a school on October 7, 1900 in the basement of Fayette Street Christian Church. The next year, the school was moved to the Booker House on Massey Street. This school was named Martinsville Christian Institute and Professor Thomas was its principal. It was the only school in Martinsville that offered elementary and high school courses to black students. The name was later changed to Piedmont Christian Institute.
The Henry County School Board, which was separate from the Martinsville School Board (Martinsville School Board came into existence in 1929 when Martinsville became a city), leased the Piedmont Christian Institute building, located at Fayette and First Streets. It was operated as Henry County Training School, beginning in 1934 and was the only high school for Blacks that was operated by the Henry County School Board. In 1939, it became part of the public school system and was the first public high school for black students. As a point of reference, the first public high school for white students, Martinsville High School, was built in 1904 on Cleveland Avenue.
On November 6, 1945, the name of Martinsville Training School was changed to Albert Harris School in honor of Rev. Albert Harris. A high school program was added in 1948, after Henry County Training School was destroyed by fire on April 14, 1948. Many of Albert Harris School family, students and parents continue to appreciate the diligence and dedication of Mr. J. Elmer turner who became Principal of Albert Harris School in 1945 and fostered the aspirations of earlier educators. He was also principal of the New Albert Harris Elementary School erected in 1949. In 1958, the old Albert Harris High School building was razed and a new Albert Harris High School was built.
Mr. Joseph E. Finley succeeded Mr. Turner in 1964 as principal of Albert Harris Elementary School and Albert Harris High School. Mr. Finley served as principal until 1968, which was also the last year of the segregated Albert Harris High School and African American students were integrated into Martinsville High School during that year. Albert Harris High School was transformed to an elementary school for all students, regardless of race, in 1968. On June 8, 2000 Albert Harris Elementary School became Albert Harris Intermediate School.