The Martinsville Colored Grade School, the forerunner of the Albert Harris Intermediate School, was founded in the 1880's as the first public school for African-American children in Martinsville. During Reconstruction, it was unusual for Virginia counties to finance black high schools. Although Martinsville did fund such a school, facilities were meager. By the early 1900s, the Martinsville Colored Grade School was meeting on the top floor of Spencer Hall, a ramshackle three-story building with only one door, at the corner of Fayette and Spencer streets.
The educational fortunes of black children in Martinsville improved dramatically with the arrival of the Rev. Albert Harris in 1917. A Methodist minister, the Rev. Harris became the principal of the Martinsville Colored Grade School, and within five years had overseen its transformation into a spacious, safe, and better equipped facility.
In 1920, the Rosenwald Fund donated a small sum, $1600, towards the total $24,382 cost of constructing a new home for the Colored Grade School. The majority of the funds came from the public through taxes ($22,632), and the African-American community donated $150 in cash. The donation of a plot of land at what is now 710 Smith Road by a local African-American resident, Betsy Hairston, fulfilled the Fund's matching requirement for local financial involvement. The new school, renamed Martinsville Training School, was a large two-story brick building with four classrooms on each floor designed to accommodate eight teachers, plus an auditorium and office space. Science labs and home economics rooms were located in the basement.
More than 5,000 Rosenwald schools, funded by Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, were built in the South between 1917 and 1932. While most were small rural elementary schools, some, like the one in Martinsville, were large urban schools. Many eventually added high school programs, as Martinsville Training School did in the 1930s.
Another key figure in the early history of the school was Tobias Grant Pettie, the school's second principal. Born in 1872 in Reidsville, N.C., Pettie briefly attended Tuskegee Institute before transferring to the St. Paul Industrial School in Lawrenceville, VA., where he graduated in 1895. Tuskegee Institute was a partner in the design and construction of the earliest Rosenwald schools, which promoted industrial education for blacks.
In 1945, the Martinsville Training School changed its name to Albert Harris High School in honor of the Rev. Harris. In 1949 an elementary school, also named for Harris, was erected next door. In 1958 the original building was demolished and replaced by the Albert Harris High School. When the Martinsville schools integrated in 1968, the building became an elementary school. In 1999, the city of Martinsville invested $10.2 million to preserve the landmark high school, which has since become an intermediate school.
The display in the lobby of the school honors the Rev. Harris and his contribution to African-American education in Martinsville.
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710 Smith Rd