The Beverly Allen School, West Point’s former public school for African Americans built in the early 1900s, holds historic and personal value for town residents, including Lucy Thornton Edwards. She attended the school from first to eighth grade and was a part of the historic West Point 29 group.
“This building holds a lot of dear memories,” Edwards said. “My current house is right near the building and I love seeing where my early life started every day.”
The small brick building off 13th Street was a school from the early 1900s to the 1960s; it was turned into the West Point and Vicinity Cultural Center circa 1975.
In January, WestRock paper mill purchased the building for $190,000 from Oscar Barber, who owned it on behalf of the Delaware Corporation, a construction company in Middlesex County, according to the property deed. The company also bought two lots across the street from the school, according to property records.
WestRock hasn’t yet decided what to do with the building.
In an email, WestRock director of corporate communications John Pensec said the company appreciates the history of West Point and is respectful of the neighborhood’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Our intent with the school building is to restore the building to usable condition,” Pensec wrote. “We are exploring possible uses for it.”
The building and several other lots in town are on the Department of Historic Resources’ National Register of Historic Places. Lee, Main and Kirby streets from first to 13th Street are also dubbed a “Historic District overlay” by the department. All were declared historic in 1996, according to online records.
According to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ website, a listing on the Register of Historic Places is strictly honorary and does not: prevent an owner from renovating or demolishing buildings, require an owner to restore or renovate property, restrict an owner’s use of the property or regulate local governments or require creation of a local historic preservation program.
Town zoning administrator Holly McGowan said West Point does not have any local historic ordinances, but added WestRock would have to get approval from various town agencies to make changes inside or outside of the building.
The Beverly Allen Historic Preservation Foundation works to highlight stories and areas in African-American history in the three rivers area.
Foundation co-founder and executive director Theresa Sirles said she and the foundation are very concerned about the future of the historic school.
“The foundation’s focus in this matter is on advocating for preservation of this historic space,” Sirles said. “We encourage WestRock to engage the community in transparent, public dialog about future plans. Its location in the Historic District and its cultural/historical significance not only to the Town of West Point, but to Virginia history overall should be considered.”
The foundation has not seen any signs that WestRock is taking steps to stabilize or restore the building, according to Sirles.
Barbara Jackson, foundation president, co-founder and student of the Beverly Allen School class of 1966, the last graduating class, said it’s one of the few buildings left in town that remind her of that time period.
“It would be really heartbreaking to me if the building was torn down. It holds a special place in my heart because a lot of my childhood memories are there, playing with my friends, my teachers and learning.”
West Point resident Cindy Sandelin, who owns a historic home on Lee Street, said WestRock has done a lot for the town and hopes they make good choices with the school.
“I'm very hopeful that WestRock will not use this as an opportunity to destroy a building so that they can make a gain for their corporation,” Sandelin said. “During the civil rights era and when school integration was at the forefront of all issues, West Point was such a fierce leader.”
Both Sandelin and resident Larkin Garbee would like to see the building be used as a museum or community space.
“WestRock could also get some historic landmark plaques put in place,” Garbee said. “My hope is that they preserve the building under the historic nature of our town and are mindful of the history.”
The school was named after Beverly Allen Sr., one of the first African-American property owners in West Point, and his son Beverly Allen Jr., who was a principal at the first African-American school in the town for 35 years.
The Freedmen’s Bureau started a school for black elementary and high school students in 1868 on the corner of Third and E streets, laying the foundation for the “Colored Public School of West Point,” according to a booklet titled “Negro Leadership 1870-1970,” compiled by Beverly Allen Jr.’s granddaughter Alice Reid, who attended the Beverly Allen School.
Allen Sr. also held school at his home off Kirby Street during that time, according to Edwards. The school eventually moved to a two-room schoolhouse on 13th Street in the early 1900s, according to the booklet.
Three separate lots that make up the present building’s lot were bought by the town from three private owners in 1925, according to property records. The African-American community worked together and built the brick building shortly after, according to Sirles.
The foundation continues to research the locations and timeline related to the early years of African-American education in West Point, according to Sirles.
The first graduating class was in 1939, and the name of the school was changed to Beverly Allen School to honor Allen Sr. and Jr. in 1942, according to the booklet.
The school was the center of controversy related to segregation when 29 African-American students made history by protesting poor school conditions in 1952.
The West Point School Board ordered students to ride a bus across King William County to attend Hamilton-Holmes High School (now middle school) after shutting down the high school portion of the Beverly Allen School, according to a 2014 Tidewater Review article.
The students, called the “West Point 29,” refused to attend Hamilton-Holmes and walked to West Point High School, an all white school, and were denied enrollment on Sept. 4, 1952. The students then protested and the case ended up in court.
Attorney Oliver Hill from the NAACP represented participants along with eight parents who were arrested in connection. King William Circuit Court ruled in favor of the school division in the case. The Virginia Supreme Court then overruled that decision.
The last segregated graduating class was in 1966.
In 1974, the town sold the building to the Community Development Association of West Point and Vicinity, made up of African-American community and church leaders who turned it into the West Point and Vicinity Cultural Center, according to property records.
Edward Forrest then bought the building in 2002, and the center continued operations until the late 2000s, according to property records. He sold the building to Barber in May 2018 after facing financial troubles.
Barber said he didn’t want the building and only bought it to help his friend and former employee. Barber put the building up for sale in 2018 soon after he bought it.
Barber said he did not notify the foundation as “they knew it was for sale,” and he did not wish to make a tax deductible donation to the foundation, a nonprofit corporation.
The foundation has been in touch with WestRock, although has not heard of any specific plans for the building, according to Sirles.
Learn more about the history of the Beverly Allen School at the foundation’s website, recoverthepast.org.
Review archives were used in this report
Luck can be reached at 757-291-2038, firstname.lastname@example.org or @ashleyrluck on Twitter