Museum honors Black families who’ve made IW better
Published 1:17 pm Wednesday, March 2, 2022
The Schoolhouse Museum began as an opportunity to preserve one of the little rural school buildings that once were the only avenue for Isle of Wight County’s Black children to achieve a basic education.
The building was a wing of the Christian Home School at Longview, which was established about a century ago. It was brought to Smithfield in 2005 and placed on a Main Street lot acquired from Dominion Resources. Within a couple of years, it had been restored, landscaped and furnished much as it and similar schools had been in those now-distant days.
The Schoolhouse Museum, however, is far more than a tiny wood-framed building. The nonprofit organization that grew out of that preservation effort today exists to record the educational journey of Isle of Wight’s African American community and to celebrate the numerous county residents who spent their lives ensuring that Black children would have opportunities that exceeded those of their parents and grandparents.
The museum sponsored a Black History Month event Saturday to recognize four families who are among the most prominent within the county’s African American community here and who have each made a contribution worthy of celebration.
Fred D. Thompson was a Nelson County native who came to Isle of Wight to teach in the public school system after graduating from Virginia State. He became a school principal and served on both the Isle of Wight Recreation Facilities Authority and the county Planning Commission. Thompson’s wife, Ruby Warren Thompson of Zuni, became a career teacher and, after retirement, was a founding member of the Schoolhouse Museum.
Both Fred and Ruby encouraged generations of county students, but it’s through their children — Warren, Fred Jr. and Benita Thompson-Byas — that their greatest legacy is firmly established.
Warren Thompson, who holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Virginia, founded Thompson Hospitality, the largest minority-owned food service and facilities management company in the country, operating restaurants and food service services in 48 states and four foreign countries.
Sister Benita serves as senior vice president in the company, overseeing Thompson Hospitality’s partnership with the Compass Group.
Fred Thompson Jr. is the company’s chief administrative officer and this year is serving as president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
Kenneth W. Pretlow was this family’s patriarch. He was instrumental, together with David Godwin and Frank Bowman, in purchasing land and deeding it to Isle of Wight County as the site for a new school for northern Isle of Wight’s Black students. Isle of Wight Training School was built on the property. Today, the site houses Westside Elementary School.
That drive to educate continued with generations of Pretlows. Kenneth’s daughter-in-law, Vivian, was the first teacher to teach French at Georgia Tyler School in Windsor. Harold’s daughter Carol served as project director for Norfolk State University’s first Defense Intelligence Agency contract, and Jocelyn Pretlow Goss taught and authored two books while doing so.
Richard H. Blount was a farmer and entrepreneur. He purchased 150 acres at Blount’s Corner, farmed the land and opened a store, R.H. Blount Country Store, one of the county’s legendary seats of rural commerce. He and his wife, the former Irene Spratley, operated the store and managed the farm while raising eight children.
Richard’s civic involvement centered on education. He became the first president of the Isle of Wight Training School PTA, which under his leadership obtained a school bus for the children north of Smithfield.
A portion of the Blount farm became the site of Hardy Elementary School, and the remainder of the farm was purchased by the county recently for construction of a new Hardy Elementary.
That focus on education and striving for excellence was passed down to later generations of Blounts. Grandson Brian is president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. Grandson Richard is a retired Dominion Power executive. Jeffrey Blount is a retired news director at NBC and a nationally acclaimed novelist. Granddaughter Marquetta Brown-Cagg is also an author. The family includes athletes, medical professionals, paramedics, teachers and other professionals.
Ashland Wilkerson and his wife, Dorothy Delk, were business leaders in the once-thriving Black business district on Wharf Hill.
Ashland owned the shoe repair shop on Wharf Hill, which was operated for many years by Paul Williams. He worked with his brother-in-law, DuBois Herrings. He was active in the Smithfield Elks Lodge #65, which was headquartered on the second floor of the building that now houses Wharf Hill Brewery. Ashland was also choir master and organist for Hill Street Baptist Church.
Mrs. Wilkerson owned the Paradise Inn, a popular diner located on Wharf Hill.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.