An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Chapter Eight: Education

By Maud Carter Clement, Chatham, Virginia, ca. 1952.

Early Private Education

Colonial: 1755-1775

The education of his children was a problem which faced the early settler of Pittsylvania. There was no great system of public schools such as you enjoy today; but education, like food and clothing, was the responsibility of each man for his own family. And wherever his home happened to be in this great new country the early American set about providing some schooling for his children.

The early settlers moved in groups as they migrated from place to place, and no doubt the question of who would teach the children was often discussed. The school house on a Virginia plantation became a familiar sight, and one school and teacher to a neighborhood was the rule. It was customary to build this school in a cleared field, and thus grew up the name of "old field school" in which the majority of early Virginians received their education.

There is mention of several early school houses in the surveyor's records, showing that the schooling of the children was provided for from the first settlement. A school houses is named on Fox Run of Blackwater River (Franklin County) in 1756; one on Captain James Terry's plantation in eastern Pittsylvania in 1760; another on the south branch of the Mayo River in 1766 (Patrick County); one on Potter's Creek of Pigg River, near Toshes, in 1767; others were named on the Nix plantation of Straightstone Creek and at Peytonsburg. Of course there were a great many more near which no surveyor's lines were run, and of which there is no record.

Early Teachers

Mr. William Williams was an early school master at Peytonsburg mentioned in a 1775 tax list. A schoolmaster was included in Mr. Henry France's tax list of 1774 (Patrick County). Early school teachers at the Pocket plantation in northern Pittsylvania were young men from the neighborhood, William Dabney, Robert Townshend, and Justinian Wills. The children from nearby plantations walked or rode to school, while those from a distance were boarded in the same house with the teacher. A letter of Justinian Wills, dated 1773, stated that while he was teaching at the Pocket he taught the children of Colonel Calloway of Bedford, and others. (Note: The business papers of the John Smith family of the Pocket date from 1748 and give a fair picture of early life in Pittsylvania).

Sum Books

Two school books of this early period are in existence today and they are both practice books in Arithmetic called Sum Books. They were made by the private teachers and on is from the Donelson schoolroom on Banister and the other from the Pocket schoolroom on Staunton River. Both are yellowed and torn, with scribblings along the edges, but they are factual reminders of the first school days in Pittsylvania.


In colonial Virginia it was customary to use persons under "indentures" for teachers. England was shipping to Virginia persons convicted of political offenses, and for debts. By paying their ship fare the services of these persons could be secured for seven years, after which time they became free men. Mr. Henry Williams of Peytonsburg had a convict school teacher in 1775. When he ran away Mr. Williams advertised for his return in the Virginia Gazette, saying that since he understood the Prussian Manual of Arms he would probably try to pass as a deserter from His Majesty's troops. Being a trained soldier he was no doubt a political offender.


The system of private teachers and private schools continued in use in Virginia after the Revolutionary War. The academy, private established and operated, was the type of school very popular in Virginia, and there were several hundred in the state prior to 1860. In their need of higher education for their children the citizens of the county in 1801 petitioned the General Assembly for the right to establish two academies. One was located near the town of Danville and was known as Danville Academy. The other stood on Banister River, six miles east of the Courthouse and was known as the Banister Academy. (Note: The trustees of the Banister Academy were Thomas H. Wooding, Edmond Tunstall, Edmond Fitzgerald, William Tunstall, Allen Womack, William Wimbish, Thomas B. Jones, John Adams Jr., Armistead Shelton, John White, Edmond Robertson, Samuel Calland, Joseph Carter, John Smith, James M. Williams, Rawley White.)

Mr. William Turner, Presbyterian minister, was chosen as the first principal. Abner W. Clopton, who became a temperance leader was a student at Banister in 1806. The William Clark family lived nearby at the Pineville plantation. When they took charge of school it was renamed the Pineville Academy and was operating in 1845.

There were academies at Whitmell, Callands, and Museville; and the Clifton Academy in the northwest section of the county took its name from the Berger plantation, which is called Clifton.

A Latin grammar school was opened at Cascade in 1803 under the direction of Mr. James Caldwell. A notice in the Virginia Gazette reads: "He will teach the Latin and Greek languages to perfection; also English he will teach in the various branches. The terms of tuition are sixteen dollars for Latin scholars, and half price for English. Any gentleman wishing to have his sons taught by Mr. Caldwell may have them boarded at the houses of Parmenas Williams or David Rice, subscribers. The price of boarding will be forty dollars per annum."

There were always private schools at the Courthouse for both boys and girls. A building that once stood in the wide field south of the Chatham cemetery was a boy's school. Here the celebrated teacher, Mr. Pike Powers once taught; and here Mr. Sidney Buford taught just before the Civil War. Miss Julia Binners, a cultured English lady, taught a small school for girls from 1845 to 1859, when she died.

Woodbourne Classical School

The most widely known academy in the county was the Woodbourne Classical School, taught by Mr. Samuel Miller at his plantation home in the northern part of the county. It was a boarding school and was attended by boys from Lynchburg and the surrounding counties. It was said of Dr. Miller: "There are advocates that reason more clearly, farmers that till more intelligently, engineers that calculate more accurately, and ministers that preach more effectively, because Sam Miller lived and taught."

The tutors and teachers of this period were frequently from the north. The most noted of these out-state teachers was Joseph P. Godfrey, who taught and trained two generations of Pittsylvania young people. He himself was trained for the Navy, but having become lame from an accident, he turned to teaching. A small monument marks his grave in the Pigg's Mill burial plot.


The glory of virginia was in her university and her colleges. The Southern Literary Messenger boasted in 1840 that only four states surpassed Virginia in colleges, having seven with over a thousand students. Of these seven William and Mary was founded in 1693, Washington College in 1786, (now Washington and Lee), Hampden-Sydney in 1776, Randolph-Macon in 1832, Emory Henry in 1838, Virginia Military Institute in 1839, Richmond College in 1840 (now University of Richmond), and Roanoke College in 1842.

Pittsylvania boys were educated in all these colleges. Young Henry Patrick Shields graduated from Hampden- Sydney in 1786 to become a distinguished judge in the new state of Indiana.

The medical college of the University of Pennsylvania was the nearest point at which Virginia men could get medical training and a great number studied there. In 1833 there were more graduates from Virginia than from any other state. Henry G. Calloway was a student there from 1799 to 1803, and settled at Callands to practice medicine. George Clement studied there 1807-1809. A medical school was established at Hampden-Sydney in 1838, and when removed later to Richmond became the Richmond Medical College.

Girls' Schools

Just before the Civil War there were four excellent private schools for girls in Danville: the Southside Female Institute, of which Mrs. E. E. Nottingham was principal; the Danville Female Academy, of which Dr. George W. Dame, the episcopal minister was principal; the Danville Female College, founded by the Methodist Church; and the Baptist Female Seminary, with Mr. J. J. Averett and Mr. Nathan Penick as associate principals. In recognition of the service of the Averett family, the institution today bears their name, being Averett College. At this time a Mr. McGilvray was conducting a girl's school at the Courthouse.

Private Education in Modern Times

With the state system of Public Education brought to its present high development there is small need for the private elementary school. There are two private schools at Chatham: Chatham Hall, a girls' school founded in 1894 by the Episcopal Church and Hargrave Military Academy now owned by the Baptist Church. This was founded as the Warren Training School.

In Danville there are two colleges for girl: Averett, founded in 1855 by the Baptist Church; and Stratford College, successor to the early Methodist College.

Public Schools

The early colonist brought with them to Virginia their English ideas and customs regarding education. For the well-to-do there were the private tutor and the private neighborhood school. Poor children were cared for in two ways: bequest of funds were made for the education of the poor generally under the care of the church. There were many of these bequests in Tidewater Virginia. Secondly, there was a system of apprenticeship whereby children were bound out for a certain number of years to a person who would teach them both a trade and the three R's, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Apprenticeship was largely practiced in Virginia.


With the establishment of American democracy many of man's ideas had to be re-organized, among them his concept of education. It was realized that the safety of the nation depended upon the ability of the people to think clearly in order to vote wisely. This called for a system of schools in which all children would be educated. Thomas Jefferson proposed a bill in 1779 for the General Diffusion of Knowledge, the first step toward a state school system. The bill was received with enthusiasm but due to the turmoil of the Revolutionary War no action was taken. Had it been, Virginia's system of public schools would have had a brave and early beginning.

A bill for education was not passed by the General Assembly until 1796, and then it had been so changed and altered as to have little force, authority being left to the county courts. In a thinly settled agricultural section like Virginia a strong central authority was needed to make a state system of schools work successfully. This is what Virginia hesitated to install. Jefferson hoped that the people would operate their schools themselves, but they were too far distant from one another for such co-operation.

Virginia was not unlike the other original states in her slowness to make over her institutions along democratic lines. The idea of a state system of public schools open to all children was worked out through years of effort and study.


There were three factors which hindered Virginia in developing her system of schools, which had to be overcome.

First, Virginia was an agricultural state, thinly populated in comparison to an industrial state, her people living at a distance from one another.

Secondly, Virginia was never a unit, owing to geographic divisions. There was Tidewater in the east, divided again by great tidal rivers; there was two mountain ranges, the Blue Ridge and the Alleghany, completely dividing the state; the long valley of Virginia between the mountain ranges; and the great western mountainous region, now West Virginia. All sections lived separated from one another, with different outlooks and different economic interests.

Thirdly, Virginia was the largest slave-owning state in the Union, and these were held chiefly in Tidewater.

In spite of these obstacles there were Virginians who worked tirelessly for a state system of elementary schools. One of them was Charles Mercer of Loudon County.

Literary Fund

In 1810 the General Assembly ordered all lands belonging to the Church of England, such as the glebes (minister's home) to be sold, and the money arising, together with other escheats, to be known as the Literary Fund, and used for the education of the poor. The fund was put in charge of the Second Auditor of the Treasury (then James Brown of Mechlenburg County), and in 1811 amounted to $12,000. Then in 1815 Charles Mercer offered a bill in Legislature that the loans which Virginia has made to the Federal Government to carry on the War of 1812, when repaid, should be applied to the Literary Fund. The bill passed in 1816, and almost overnight the Fund was increased to $450,000; and in a few years had grown to $1,000,000.

Now began a contest of minds as to how to build a state system of education. Thomas Jefferson had conceived of a great university to cap the system, to be located in Albemarle County, near his home. Mercer and others contended for the primary and middle schools, as benefiting the greatest number. The poor, for whom the fund was established, were forgotten. Mr. Jefferson, with his great influence, won the contest of 1817-1818. The sum of $45,000 was set aside for scholarships for the poor; and in the following eight years the total (or sum) of a million dollars was spent founding the university.

The act of 1818 made primary education a gift to paupers. It required a man to publicly declare that he was unable to provide books and schooling for his children. Before he would do this he often let them grow up in ignorance.

School Commissioners

In each county fifteen school commissioners were appointed to handle the county's share in the Literary Fund. At a court held for Pittsylvania County in June 1818, the commissioners were selected according to military districts. From the area of the 42nd Regiment were chosen Stephen Coleman, William H. Shelton, James M. Williams, James Soyars, John Hutchings, Nathaniel Wilson and Joel Estes. From the 101st Regiment: William Clark, Thomas H. Wooding, Charles Clement, William Tunstall, Thomas Shelton, James Hart, Ralph Smith and John Ward.

In 1823 the commissioners were ordered to make annual reports to the auditor, and the first report from Pittsylvania's commissioners reads: "Within the year ending December 31, 1823, there have been in operation in said county schools of all sorts of which fifteen were partly attended by poor children. That from the best information that can be obtained there are in the said county 254 poor children entitled to the benefit of the Fund, on hundred and twelve of whom have been educated for different periods. For the year 1822-1823 have expended $1,014, leaving in the hands of the Treasurer for future use on application $2,827."

The report for the year 1825 gave twenty-two schools which have been attended by poor children, of whom there were three hundred and eighty-one in the county, one hundred and sixty having received schooling.

State Superintendent

By an Act of 1829 the Second Auditor was named Superintendent, with a salary of $800.00 per year. Thus Virginia was given her first Superintendent of Schools. Also by this act a system of district schools was planned, but never worked successfully.

The people were now thoroughly dissatisfied with the state's school policy. There was an ornamental top in the University, a poor primary foundation, and the complete neglect of the middle and higher elementary schools. So Virginians continued to follow their old customs of the private family tutor, private neighborhood school, and the academy.

The new superintendent tried to improve the condition of Virginia schools, and in 1830 began a crusade for better teachers and teaching methods. He wrote many questionnaires to his county commissioners, and in 1834 his Pittsylvanian commissioners replied: "We are gratified to state that the results of some of our labors have terminated in turning out from the primary schools young gentleman who have taken charge of schools and other important departments in science, morals, and religion."

School Books

The Superintendent asked for reports on the text books used in the schools, and in his report of 1845 named the following as being used: Arithmetic: Pike's, Smith's; Grammar: Lindley Murray's, Smith's; Speller: Webster's, Eclectic; Geography: Onley's, Parley's; Readers" The Bible, The New England Reader, The English Reader, Parley's.

The Superintendent was aided in his effort to improve the schools by such able educators as Dr. Jonathan Cushing, president of Hampden-Sydney; Dr. John Holt Rice, editor; Dr. Benjamin Smith of Danville, Mr. Alex. Campbell of Washington County, and others. Dr. Smith made a study of the European school system, and on the invitation of the governor made a report to the Legislature in 1839, on the Prussian Primary School System.

In spite of obstacles Virginia moved forward from 1840-50 toward a state system of schools. There was no protest against public education, only how to administer it.

The census of 1840 gave to Virginia four hundred academies and grammar schools, and 1500 primary schools in a white population of 740,000; who lived largely in the country. The superintendent's report for 1844 gave 3,579 schools both primary and secondary receiving aid from the Literary Fund. Many of these schools were now running nine months of the year.

County Superintendents

The General Assembly in 1846 authorized a school superintendent for each county. Virginia now had the frame work for her future school system, with a state superintendent, a county superintendent, a county board of school commissioners, and a large school fund.

In 1860, on the eve of the War, Virginia had 3,896 public school teachers, 3,776 public school buildings, with 154,000 children in public and private schools. The Literary Fund, together with the $1 capitation tax, amounted to near 2 million dollars.

Modern Public Education

Public education in Virginia was brought to a complete standstill by the Civil War. The Literary Fund was turned to war purposes.

In 1867, a new state constitution was offered to Virginia by the Federal government, known as the Underwood constitution. It required the General Assembly to provide a system of public free schools as early as possible and not later than 1876. There could no longer be lengthy discussion of methods now action was required.

Act of 1870

In July, 1870, the General Assembly passed the bill for establishing public free schools in Virginia. No new system of schools was created, but the old plan was completed by adding three features:

  1. a strong central authority under the superintendent;
  2. the doing away with all class distinctions;
  3. the imposing of an annual tax upon property for the benefit of public schools.

The school system that was worked out provided for:

  1. a State Superintendent of Public Instruction, appointed by the General Assembly;
  2. a State Board of Education, composed of the governor, attorney-general and state superintendent, who with the Senate named the county superintendents;
  3. county superintendents paid chiefly from the Literary Fund;
  4. division of counties into school districts, corresponding to magisterial districts;
  5. a board of three trustees for each school district;
  6. teachers employed by district trustees, certified by superintendent.

State Superintendent

Dr. William H. Ruffner was appointed first State Superintendent, and it is said that he was suggested by General Robert E. Lee. Dr. Ruffner's father, Dr. Henry Ruffner, was a former president of Washington College, and had long been interested in state free schools. Dr. William Ruffner was familiar with the history of public education in Virginia, and saw that he must make the people realize that the proposed school system was their own work, developed through the years, and not that of "carpetbaggers." The circulars and reports which he sent out to the people furnish a history of education in Virginia.

By January 1, 1871, Virginia's system of free public schools was in full operation with 3,000 public schools and 130,000 children in attendance.

Pittsylvania's county superintendent under the new system was Dr. George W. Dame, the Episcopal minister at Danville. At a county court held in August, 1872, the salary of the superintendent was fixed at $350. Dr. Dame reported to Dr. Ruffner, Superintendent, in 1872: "Public sentiment has been rapidly growing in favor of public schools. Two things only are required to make the free schools a decided success, neat, commodious and well furnished school houses."

For the higher education and training of teachers, a state normal school for women was established at Farmville in 1884; men teachers were trained at William and Mary College. For the training of colored people Hampton Institute had been established at the close of the War by both private and public funds. In 1882 the state established the Normal and Industrial Institute at Petersburg for the training of the colored teachers.

Virginians turned with a will to building their new system of schools. But it was not until the turn of the century, with greater economic recovery from the Civil War, that the new era of schools came to the state. With the turn of 1900 came the real beginnings of the high schools and the consolidation of the elementary school.

In 1950 Pittsylvania had ten accredited whit high schools: Brosville, Callands, Chatham, Climax, Dan River, Gretna, Schoolfield, Spring Garden, Renan and Whitmell. The high school enrollment was 2,348; and the elementary enrollment 7,900. There are approximately 322 white teachers.

Colored Schools

There are two colored high schools in this county, the Northside School in Gretna and the Southside High School near Danville. There are 951 colored high school pupils and 4,829 elementary school pupils. There are 142 colored teachers employed at the present time.

[Go to next chapter.]


Related Book

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Maud Carter Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia (1929)

This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia. (See also guides to Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville.)