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Rosenwald Revamped aims to preserve former school

A new civic group, Rosenwald Revamped, has formed to preserve the history and shepherd the future of the former Rosenwald-Felts School in Galax.

The group has been meeting and working on obtaining 501c3 status, said Sylvia Richardson, president of Rosenwald Revamped, who addressed Galax City Council at their March 13 meeting.

Later, council appointed two members to attend meetings of Rosenwald Revamped.

“We haven’t really spoken to you guys about anything to do with Rosenwald since the meeting on Nov. 14,” Richardson said, referring to a night when supporters turned out to oppose the city’s possible sale of the building.

The building, which was used for multiple functions and organizations over the years, is located in “The Hill,” a historically Black neighborhood on the east side of the city. It was built as one of 5,000 schools across the South for Black students, a collaboration between educator, speaker and frequent presidential advisor Booker T. Washington and German-Jewish immigrant Julius Rosenwald, who was the president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. The Galax school had the name “Felts” added to honor the local family that donated land for it to be built on.

Today, it’s owned by the city and leased to Rooftop of Virginia CAP’s Head Start program.

“We have systematically been trying to go about the things that will get us to our destination,” Richardson continued. “The first thing we did was, we had a formal committee with elected officers. And we have a vision statement and a mission statement, and we are also in the process of developing a business plan.”

Their mission statement, provided in a handout to council, is “preserving African American history while turning lives around with open doors.”

Their purposes for the building include “offering classes on cultural awareness of the rich history of African-Americans from the Galax community and Rosenwald-Felts School,” creating a museum of school memorabilia, a fundraising site for various organizations, an educational center, a place that offers outdoor activities like the annual King of the Hill Basketball Tournament, and workshops on topics like parenting, drug addiction recovery, financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

However, she said, “We’re kind of restricted because we really don’t know where we stand with this council. We’re working toward an end, but what is the plan?”

Rosenwald Revamped is trying to find out “what’s happening with the fact that Rooftop of Virginia is leasing the building. When is that lease up? Just a few different things. And we wanted to know if there’s going to be a commitment to our committee, and to the community. We want to sort of see where we are at this point.”

Joe Steffen — a Galax native who now lives and practices law in Savannah, Georgia — also spoke to council and said he had made the 6.5-hour drive up to address them about the Rosenwald-Felts School building.

Steffen was a council member 40 years prior, and noted that the downtown trees (referenced in another portion of the meeting) were planted by the council he sat on at the time.

“Rosenwald-Felts School is something that only exists in a very few places now in this country,” he said. “It is something that has to be preserved, and it has to be preserved in a way that is honest to its history. Now I don’t know any other way you can do that, than to have a major element of that project be to celebrate the African-American people who grew up within those schools.”

He noted that the late U.S. senator and Civil Rights leader John Lewis and late poet Maya Angelou had both come up through Rosenwald schools. He added that, of more than 5,000 such schools created, only a small percentage still exist.

“So I’m here to drive up the mountain to advocate that you all do everything possible to preserve that — not as an African-American issue, but as an American history issue,” he said.

Chauncey Robinson, Rosenwald Revamped vice president, also briefly addressed council, echoing Steffen’s words. “I just want to remind you that there’s history here in Galax, and it must be preserved and documented,” he said, before thanking them.

Acting City Manager Keith Barker suggested that council appoint two or three members to sit on a committee to report back to the rest of council, to keep everyone informed. He reminded them that if three council members join and plan to attend, then the meetings must be advertised.

Council Member Evan Henck and Vice Mayor Beth White volunteered to be on the committee, while Council Member Sharon Ritchie agreed to be an alternate if either became unavailable. Council voted to approve these appointments, except for Council Member Travis Haynes, who was absent.

Rosenwald Revamped meets at the Galax Public Library every third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m.

Fire destroys Fries buildings

FRIES — A structure fire on Hatters Hollow Lane the night of March 13 destroyed a garage and a camper in Fries, but left no one injured, according to Fries Fire & Rescue.

Firefighters responded to find a detached garage fully involved, with a downed power line to the right rear of the building, the report said. A nearby camper full of vehicle parts was destroyed by the fire, as well. Fries units immediately went to work on the fire and were assisted by members of the Galax Volunteer Fire Department.

After the fire was extinguished, firefighters from both localities completed overhaul, removing debris and cooling hot spots before departing from the scene.

According to Fries Assistant Fire Chief Junior Young, a power line “burned in two and fell to the ground,” as a result of the fire and was not its cause, which is still unknown.

The owners had managed to retrieve two Harley-Davidson motorcycles from the garage before firefighters arrived, said Young, but were unable to rescue — and subsequently lost — several racing lawnmowers.

Also present was the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office.

Lawmakers have mixed success with housing reform bills

Legislative efforts to tackle spiking eviction notices, housing and utility costs were mostly shot down during the Virginia General Assembly session that just concluded.

Almost 193,000 eviction filings have been made in Virginia since March 2020. The monthly-updated data comes from the Princeton Eviction Lab, a group that makes nationwide eviction data public to increase awareness about housing, eviction and poverty. Not all eviction filings lead to an eviction, according to the lab. Among the 10 states tracked by the lab, Virginia ranks second, behind Pennsylvania.

Eviction filings and judgments are below pre-pandemic levels in Virginia, but Alexandria and the city of Richmond surpassed pre-pandemic levels by 7% and 6%, respectively, from October to December 2022. That is according to a quarterly data report from the RVA Eviction Lab, an organization at Virginia Commonwealth University that gathers eviction data.

“Virginia renters and landlords deserve common-sense and clear rules of the road to ensure everyone gets money they’re owed and to prevent unnecessary evictions,” stated Congresswoman-elect Jennifer McClellan via a text statement, in reference to two housing bills. (McClellan resigned as a state senator effective March 7.)

Utility costs are also increasing, but the General Assembly passed legislation aimed to protect consumers from rate hikes.

Del. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan) introduced House Bill 1604, which allows the State Corporation Commission to regulate utility rates when revenues exceed the utility’s authorized rate of return. This bill is identical to Senate Bill 1321, introduced by McClellan.

“The passage of HB 1604 and SB 1321 reflect the success of many efforts over the years to restore the authority of the SCC to lower electric rates when utilities overcharge customers,” stated Kajsa Foskey, economic justice outreach coordinator for the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) had her bill SB 839 passed, which allows the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development director to conduct a comprehensive statewide housing needs assessment at least every five years. The director will develop a statewide housing plan with updates.

This bill is an important first step in documenting the need for affordable housing in Virginia, said co-patron Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax). It could help the General Assembly be more willing to allocate more money to affordable housing, Kory said.

Failed Housing & Utility Bills

Capital News Service also reached out to lawmakers and advocates to get their take on the legislation that did not advance.

Bills to protect tenants that did not advance this session included:

• SB 941: Required landlords to fully refund security deposits to tenants within 15 business days — instead of 45 business days of a move-out inspection — if the tenant attended the inspection and they don’t owe rent as of the inspection date. There must not be damages beyond wear and tear.

“I’m encouraged by the momentum and I hope to see them pass both chambers in coming years,” McClellan stated, about SB 1330 and SB 941.

• SB 1127: Assembled a work group to evaluate policies to protect vulnerable rental occupants if facing eviction for noncompliance. Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

• SB 1141: Authorized any locality in Virginia to provide an affordable housing program by amending the locality’s zoning ordinance. The bill would help bring jobs and housing into balance to make them more accessible and affordable, said Kathryn Howell, associate professor and co-director of RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“We’ve got all these jobs for people who are earning... less than 60% of the area median income,” Howell said. “We want to have housing that matches that.”

• SB 1330: Increased from five days to 14 days the mandatory waiting period after a landlord serves a tenant a written “pay or quit” notice.

Emergency provisions were put in place during the pandemic to expand the waiting period. Advocates have made repeated efforts to make the mandatory waiting period permanent, said Laura Dobbs, a housing advocacy attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

• SB 1340: Prohibited a landlord from performing background and credit checks on a rental applicant unless the landlord met the outlined requirements. One requirement was an established written rental application policy that included a disclosure of all nonrefundable application fees and deposits.

• SB 1447: The SCC would establish limitations on the authority of investor-owned utilities to disconnect service for nonpayment of bills or fees during a statewide emergency declared by the governor, during temperature or weather extremes, or on a Friday, weekend, state holiday or day immediately before a state holiday.

“During instances of public emergency... everyone needs access to water, everyone needs access to heat in a snowstorm, everyone needs access to AC during a heatwave,” said Sheila Herlihy Hennessee, faith organizer with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. The organization primarily lobbies in support of racial, social and economic justice policies.

It is more efficient to keep people in their homes and “protect folks where they are,” Herlihy Hennessee said.

• HB 1532 (similar to SB 1278): Allowed localities to adopt rent stabilization provisions.

Despite the bills failing, “at least we were able to... start having that conversation about out of control rent in Virginia,” Dobbs said.

Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) did not respond to multiple requests for comment about SB 1278.

• HB 1875: Delayed utility disconnection for residential customers with certain serious medical conditions and households including residents under 12 months old, over 65 years old, or with disabilities.

This bill would directly benefit all consumers, said Foskey, with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. Utility shut-off data should be more accessible to see who is being affected, because it is an essential measure for consumer protection, she said.

Change takes time, Del. Kory said. Even if a bill is only heard in a subcommittee, it is a good first step. The information being shared could still help change legislators’ minds, she said.

“We just have to work towards it and elect people who think it’s an important goal,” Kory said.

Two arrested after high-speed pursuit

On Feb. 9, a high-speed pursuit across Surry County, N.C., and Carroll County ended with multiple felony charges agains two men, ranging from stolen property and eluding police to drug and weapon violations.

The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center received a call that day reporting that the Surry County Sheriff’s Office Street Crimes Unit was in pursuit of a white 2020 Chevrolet SUV northbound Interstate 77, approaching the state line.

“Surry County communications stated the pursuit was initiated after deputies identified the driver as being a wanted fugitive in their jurisdiction, as well as the vehicle being reported as stolen,” said Carroll County Sheriff Kevin Kemp.

Carroll deputies responded to intercept and take over the pursuit when it entered the county. Surry advised the deputies that the suspect vehicle had reached speeds of 130 mph as it came into Virginia, according to the police report.

Between Exit 1 in Lambsburg and Exit 8 in Fancy Gap, Carroll deputies took lead of the pursuit with Surry assisting. Hillsville Police Department was notified of the pursuit set up spike strips at the 12 mile marker of I-77, the report said.

The suspect vehicle exited I-77 at exit 8 and turned on to Chances Creek Road, traveling east towards U.S. 52, then south. At the intersection of 52 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, the vehicle entered the Parkway, turned north towards Roanoke, the report said. The SUV quickly exited on to Lightning Ridge Road, where U.S. Park Service rangers had an unrelated vehicle stopped. The stolen vehicle continued on Lightning Ridge, turned south on to Elk Spur Road and exited into a housing development.

After making several turns in the development, the vehicle came to a dead end and four occupants exited the vehicle. Three suspects — two men and one woman — fled on foot. A fourth person, female, immediately surrendering to law enforcement, the report said.

The sheriff’s department brought its tracking K9, Maverick, to the scene, as well as Virginia State Police K9, while a perimeter of the surrounding area was put into place.

Maverick began a scent trail from the vehicle and, after a short track, located the first subject, who was hiding in a small creek, the report said. Marquis Anthony Whitlock Hodges, 37, of Mount Airy, N.C., was taken into custody without incident. He was wanted in Surry County for narcotic violations.

Deputies conducting perimeter patrols on Bear Trail Road observed a man and woman in the wood line parallel to Bear Trail Road, the report said. The state police K9 team responded to that location and a short time later both subjects were taken into custody without incident.

The male suspect, Zachary Brian Willis, 35, of Mount Airy N.C. — identified as the driver during the pursuit — was wanted for probation violation in North Carolina and was identified as the driver of the vehicle during the pursuit.

The woman taken into custody with Willis also was wanted in North Carolina, Kemp said, but for in-state pick up only, so she was released.

The SUV, reported stolen from Greensboro Airport, was recovered and returned to the owner, Avis Rentals.

Willis was charged with felony eluding police, possession of stolen property (the vehicle), possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, possession of drug paraphernalia, reckless driving, driving without a license and being a fugitive from justice.

Hodges was charged with possession of a Schedule II drug and being a fugitive from justice.

Both were transported to the Carroll County Magistrate’s Office and at the conclusion of a bond hearing, both were held without bond pending arraignment in Carroll County General District Court. More charges are expected in Surry County stemming from the pursuit.

In a news release, Kemp said he was proud of the work put in by his deputies and K9 teams, and “these results contribute to a strong working relationship built between the surrounding jurisdictions working together to get results for our citizens.”

Kemp thanked all the agencies that assisted or were involved — Surry County Sheriff’s Office, Hillsville Police Department, U.S. Park Service, Virginia State Police and Carroll County Fire & Rescue.

'Bucket brigade’ helps save building

Gone are the days when firefighters ran “bucket brigades” of water to fires in order to save lives and property; pressurized water hoses have long since replaced that method.

However, if you live in Galax and the firefighters are still on their way, you might find your neighbors reviving the practice on your behalf, as Courtney Cornett did last week when an outbuilding near her home caught fire.

The Glade Street resident said that on March 12 around 3 a.m., she and her boyfriend, Tony Jackson, were going to sleep.

“I sat up in the bed and saw flashing from my bedroom window,” she said. “I asked my boyfriend what was flashing? He looked out the window and [an outbuilding] was on fire.”

The Galax Volunteer Fire Department was summoned and ended up putting out the fire, but they arrived to find Jackson, along with their friend George Rosier, neighbor Daniel Meija, and two of Meija’s family members running buckets of water from the nearby creek to the fire.

“My boyfriend was in the creek barefooted filling up buckets, a trash can, flower pots, whatever they could get,” said Cornett, “and he was passing it up the bank to our friend, who was also barefooted, and to the neighbor and his family members.”

The temperatures that night were just above freezing, making it a bad night to go wading in a creek.

The GVFD noted in a social media post that, “Arriving units found [neighbors] working hard with buckets of water from an adjacent creek to hold the fire in check until firefighters arrived.”

The building didn’t contain anything of great value, said Cornett, and nobody was hurt, so considering there was a fire at all, they got the best possible outcome.

“We did not lose anything major, just some small stuff that is replaceable,” Cornet said. “Almost all tools and big things were OK. I’m just thankful it was material things and not us or our house.”

Firefighters ruled a wood stove to be the cause of the fire, and were able to clear the scene in 40 minutes.

Cornett expressed gratitude for the help. “I’m so thankful for my boyfriend, our friend and our neighbors,” she said. “They acted so quick and I’m so grateful they did, so it didn’t get to my trailer. They was amazing and a blessing. And I’m grateful for the Galax Fire Department for coming and getting the rest of everything that we couldn’t.”

The GVFD’s social media post ended with, “Outstanding job by the occupants and neighbors to hold this fire! Future firefighters maybe?? Stay safe!”