Reverend Stephen J. Ellis

History

Ellis Acres Park

Buckingham Training School & Founder


A hero, Stephen James Ellis (1865-1937), arrived in Buckingham during the era of grave turbulent division in the United States with the introduction of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 01, 1863. The Emancipation was correcting a grave injustice of humanity, Slavery, and Reverend Ellis was equalizing education to free locked minds to the empowerment of education.

In 1868 the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, granting citizens equal protection of the laws, is ratified.

In 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that "separate but equal" facilities do not violate the 14th Amendment.

In 1902, Article IX, Section 140 of the Constitution of Virginia declares that "white and colored children shall not be taught in the same school."

In 1954 the Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education the segregation violates the 14th Amendment and is unconstitutional.

The Reverend Stephen J. Ellis organized support, authority and fiduciary means to establish the Buckingham Training School Campus which opened in 1924 and operated until 1954. This was the first secondary level education school for citizens of African American heritage. The school consisted of four rooms with wood burning stoves and wooden floors treated with oil. Annual supplies consisted of one math book, one history book, a box of chalk, one can of oil, a water pale with dipper, a broom, and a dust pan. There was no public school bus services, library, cafeteria, electricity, indoor plumbing or outdoor privy. Water was retrieved from a nearby spring for the two students and teacher to consume using the same dipper. The two students were Reverend Ellis son and niece, Burton Ellis and Georgie Morgan (aka Georgie Morgan Robinson Cousins). The students would take turns reading history while the other student and teacher listened. Occasionally the teacher would doze off, and Georgie and Burton would engage in child play until the teacher woke up per interview with Georgie. On Monday mornings Nathan Morgan carried his daughter, Georgie, from the First Liberty Baptist Church area on Rock Ridge Road to Dillwyn by buggy to stay with Uncle Stephen for the week while attending BTS. On cold winter mornings, a heated rock wrapped in cloth was placed in the buggy to keep Georgie feet warm. After graduation at the 11th grade, she was hired as a teacher at BTS during the school year and attended Virginia State College during summer sessions.  Burton Ellis taught at Cedar Elementary School on Bell Road.

Attendance increased each year as the hope of students with aspiring minds, sharpen skills and towering talents completed the elementary grades, one to seven, in the predominately single teacher one and two room elementary schools scattered throughout the county. The dream was completing secondary education at BTS. Documentation and remnants reveal as many as 33 such tiny schools existed. Facilities, resources, equipment, and supplies were just meager if not worse in these tiny schools. A single teacher faced seven grades in ages ranging from six years to 14 years old in a single room with grades divide by seating arrangement without partitions. The teacher was also responsible for recess and outdoor activities, discipline, lunch program, first aid medical care, and counseling boys and girls entering puberty. Oral histories revealed young girls were molested and raped by their young male classmates. Many of the students did not complete the seven grades due to the institutional challenges placed in their educational path to generate failure before entry to Buckingham Training School. The challenges included hardships of walking to school in rainy wet summer weather and cold freezing winter weather while being taunted by white students riding on public county buses. Some students walked seven miles daily; smaller children were carried on the backs of older children.

In 1954 Buckingham Training School was renamed Stephen J. Ellis Elementary School in honor of its founder when Carter G. Woodson High School opened. In 2015 Buckingham Training School was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, 208-5001.

Jack and Ann Ellis had four children, Stephen James., Wilson Dixon, Lucy J. and Archer B. Stephen graduated from Virginia Seminary and College, and he was an unrelenting force encouraging all to continue the pursuit of education, empowerment, and enhancement. He echoed this concept from the pulpits of Holy Trinity, Fork Union, Jerusalem, Zion Baptist, and First Liberty Baptist Churches where he served as pastor. His voice echoed the same theme in presentations to the county school board, civic improvement organizations, and individuals he encountered in his travels. Reverend Ellis and his son, Burton, served as undertakers in the Lodge House in Dillwyn. Other positions he had occupied include Supervisor of Elementary Education, Farm Agent, Moderator of the North River Baptist Association, Insurance Agent and Special Assistant to the President of the Virginia Seminary and College. He was a member of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masonic Lodge. Mrs. Eliza Tyree Spencer recalls Burton as her first grade teacher at Cedar Elementary School which is located at the junction of Bell and Rock Ridge Roads; furthermore she shared that as a teenager after Sunday School Class at Chief Cornerstone Baptist Church, Reverend Ellis stopped by to give her and others a ride to attend his service at Zion Baptist Church. He married twice, Katie Jones and later Dora Jones and had one child in each union Burton Ellis and Pearl Ellis Logan, respectively. Burton married Beatrice Payne from the Mount Olive Baptist Church area, and Pearl married Emanuel Logan. Stephen, Katie and Dora are buried at his home church, First Liberty Baptist Church, 197 Rock Mill Road, Buckingham County, Virginia.

In 1954, CGWHS opened on Route 20 in an effort to continue the inequalities of Separate-But-Equal-System and delay the integration of public schools. The newly constructed CGWHS was designed to be substandard to the earlier constructed Buckingham Central High School. Areas of marked differences included separate auditorium with elevated stationary seating and a separate gymnasium verses a combined auditorium with folding metal chairs and gymnasium with economy metal bleachers;  occupancy and performance space of these areas exceeded a 100% variance; one had graded grass covered athletic fields verses a simulated  ungraded baseball field with sapling and weeds 24 inches tall highlighted by a chicken wire backstop; cafeteria spaces,  accommodations, features and services were not equitable; the separate bus transportation fleets exhibited the most public glaring differences in newer models buses, the backup bus for one exceeded the quality of the other system main buses [example: Main Bus #26 for black students was substandard the white student backup bus, and the black student Backup Bus #3 had no heat and holes in floorboard]; and most captivating was the average cost per student in Virginia, $40.17 per white student compared $10.47 per African American student! In neighboring Prince Edward County, the high school that was constructed in the 1950s for African American students and later converted to an integrated high school is so below par that the Varsity Basketball Program is executed in the Middle School designed and built later for all students. Whereas the converted Buckingham Central High School, designed and built in the 1930s, is adequate to host its Varsity Basketball Program. 

The development of African American education in Buckingham reveals a generation gap in the level of educational facilities. During the pre-  and early-1900s, African Americans were educated in churches and homes while their counterparts had one- and two-room schools. For instance, by 1915 there were 33 one- and two-room grade schools and no high school for black students, but four high schools (Curdsville, Dillwyn, Arvonia and Gold Hill) for white students.


Credits: Georgie Morgan Robinson Cousins, Dorothy Mosley, Eliza Tyree Spencer, Oral Interviews.
Farmville [VA] Herald, Friday, April 16, 1954.
Prepared by DHJ/WMD, Ellis Acres Memorial Park, Inc., 245 Camden Street, Dillwyn, Virginia 20936,
​telephone 434 983-5600, ellisacres2011@gmail.com