Holley Graded School Remains A Landmark
As you drive through the Northern Neck, you can easily pass history and not even know it, unless you happen to stop to read the many historical markers dotting the region. One such spot is right on Route 360 in Lottsburg, the Holley Graded School.

Some of the desks used by pupils at the Holley Graded School remain on display.

The story begins at the end of the Civil War. A group of young women, who spent the pre-war years working for abolition of slavery and for women’s rights, were looking to take the next step, now that the end of the war had brought an end to slavery in America.

Among them were Susan B. Anthony, Emily Howland and Sallie Holley, all of whom had worked with the leading abolitionist of the day, William Lloyd Garrison.

Worried that blacks in Virginia were receiving no education, Emily Howland moved to Northumberland County, purchasing 350 acres near the present location of the First Baptist Church outside Heathsville. She established a small school for black children, and saw the need was greater than she alone could fill. She wrote to her friend Sallie Holley and persuaded her to come to Northumberland County as well.

Sallie Holley and her friend Caroline Putnam arrived in Northumberland in 1869, purchasing a two acre parcel in Lottsburg, where they built a school. They were well received by Northumberland’s newly enfranchised black citizens but whites tended to view the New Yorkers with more than a bit of suspicion. A letter Sallie wrote to a friend in August 1875 described her circumstances.

“Nothing could be more bare, and blank and hopeless than our material surroundings were to begin with. But upon a two-acre strip of this desolate land, exhausted a hundred years ago with miserable tobacco raising, we have succeeded in building a cheerful teacher’s home, and a spacious, airy, pleasant new schoolhouse. We have made flower borders, strawberry beds, melon patches, grape arbors, and fruit trees to blossom and flourish, to the admiration of all around us…One great compensation for living in Virginia is the climate, the most delightful I ever knew. The winters are short and mild. In summer we have a refreshing breeze from off Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. We never know a hot night.”

The school remained in operation until Miss Putnam died in 1917. The property was then deeded to an all black board of trustees, who continued this educational legacy with dedication, sacrifice and a considerable amount of pride.

When Route 360 was moved slightly in the early 1920s, the original school house was torn down. But the black community of Lottsburg raised money and provided the labor to build the current four room school house in 1922, though the cornerstone inexplicitly bears a 1933 date.

“It was the only education opportunity for black children in that part of the county,” said Northumberland resident Porter Kier, who helped with restoration efforts many years later.

“The state never gave the school any money; it all came from the black community. The children, in grades one through eight, all walked to school each day and each one carried a potato for lunch. They would place their potatoes on the stove when they arrived each morning and by lunchtime, they would be cooked. It became quite a tradition,” he said.

The Holley Graded School continued in operation for decades, instilling tough discipline in its students. Many of the girls who were educated there later became teachers at the school, continuing the legacy and tradition of academic excellence. When Northumberland schools were desegregated in 1959, the Holley Graded School closed its doors, but it was not abandoned.

“A wonderful woman in the community, Mrs. Ruth Blackwell, made it her mission to keep up the building and grounds. To make money at one time she even turned it into a billiards parlor,” Porter said.

In the 1980s Porter and others in the community joined forces to keep the Holley Graded School alive. They raised money and received a matching grant to perform a restoration. The building was placed on the list of National Register of Historic Places and was designated a Virginia Historic Landmark as well.

Mrs. Blackwell died before the renovation could be completed, but her dream for the building remains intact. The building that housed so many dreams and touched so many lives has been preserved for the future.

(C) Northern Neck Today