The John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum preserves Spotsylvania's stories
All photos: John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum
Along Courthouse Road in Spotsylvania County, VA, near the community of Snell, you’ll find a site rich in history, but with a story that continues today.
The John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a multi-faceted event that is free and open to the public (registration requested, contact the museum) on Sept. 10, from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.
The fifth anniversary event will include awards presentations to members of the community for their contributions to medicine, the arts, politics, religion, education and other fields and the opening of a new exhibit, called “Soles of our Legacies,” that traces the life stories of notable community figures, and also includes interactive elements through the use of QR codes that can be scanned on phones and tablets.
All of this takes place on a site that was critical to the history of education in Spotsylvania County.
The John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum is built on the original site of the first high school for blacks in Spotsylvania County. That building, known as the Spotsylvania Training School or Snell Training School, was built in 1913 by the Spotsylvania Sunday School Union, and led by principal John J. Wright.
The building was destroyed by fire in 1941, and the Sunday School Union donated both the land and the insurance money to rebuild the school to the Spotsylvania County School Board, which took over operations. In 1952, the John J. Wright Consolidated School opened to all black youth in grades 1-11 in Spotsylvania County.
When the county schools integrated in 1968, John J. Wright became a middle school. Thanks to the efforts of concerned citizens who did not want to lose this history and the John J. Wright name, the school transitioned to the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center when the county built a new middle school in 2006. This center houses alternative learning programs for county students. The library of the school houses the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum.
A permanent exhibit in the museum tells the story of African-American education in Spotyslvania County, and the board of directors is constantly adding to that with rotating exhibits that aim to inspire and educate visitors, and to connect the events of the past with those of today.
Roger Braxton, a museum board member who co-authored the book, “African Americans of Spotsylvania County,” spends a lot of time in what could be called relentless pursuit of the stories and memories of Spotsylvania’s African American community.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history we have here and we’re trying to bring it to life,” Braxton said.
In the five years that the museum has been open, he has seen an important shift in attitudes: Whereas people were at first reluctant to open up and tell their stories or share their family photographs, the museum’s professional treatment and contextualization of this information has inspired many more to come forward, leading to a richer record of the area’s past that volunteers are working every day to add to.
“One of the best outcomes of this, is when folks come to the museum, normally on Saturdays, and sit around and tell stories, and remembering all the old school days, and remembering all the things that happened,” said Braxton, a 1962 graduate of John J. Wright—a member of its first 12th-grade class since 1933. “We all know the stories and we all love to hear them.”
Braxton and other volunteers continue to collect oral histories, stories, photographs and anything else that can help tell this story. And by mixing today’s technology with these windows into the past, they seek to create a vibrant record that will resonate with new generations for years to come.
“It’s important to know what our history was, because we’re losing it, and if we don’t record it and preserve it, it will be gone,” Braxton said.
A great companion to a visit to the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum is the Spotsylvania African-American Heritage Trail.