Juneteenth celebrations start

Published 8:30 am Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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It wasn’t just a celebration on Saturday, June 15, as people gathered at Farmville’s Mary E. Branch Center. Yes, the town and others had come to honor the anniversary of Juneteenth, but they were also following a challenge. Organizers had asked everyone to bring a non-perishable food item to support the FACES food pantry and they did just that.

Juneteenth marks a holiday based around June 19, 1865. That’s when Major Gen. Gordon Granger delivered the news of and ordered the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, the last state to learn of the decision. Since this year, the date itself is during the week, many communities held events over the weekend prior, including Farmville.

The event at the Mary Branch Center, located at 632 S. Main Street, included food, music, a kids zone, vendors and valuable information for the community.

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There’s a story even in the center’s name. Mary E. Branch was born in Farmville in 1881 to Tazwell and Harriett Branch, both former slaves. Her father Tazwell served on the Farmville Town Council and was eventually elected to two terms in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Mary meanwhile got involved in education. After graduation, she became an elementary school teacher in Blackstone, specializing in English. She later joined the staff at Virginia State College, teaching there for 20 years.

Mary wanted to improve her own education, as well. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1922 and a master’s in English from the same school in 1925. In 1928, she became the dean of women at Vashon High School in St. Louis, Missouri.

Mary has a place in history, however, for what she did after that. In 1930, the American Missionary Association came to her with a request. They wanted her to become president of Tillotson College — a college that was struggling in 1930, according to the Mary Branch papers at what is now Tillotson University.

“It had seen declining enrollment, and the United States Department of Education, because of its findings from a survey of all the African American colleges in America, was suggesting the school be closed,” a summary of Branch papers states. “It was into this moment that Dr. Branch stepped in and raised the school to heights it had never seen before.”

Why was Mary’s appointment important? She was the first African American female college president, serving 14 years at the school. Beyond this milestone, she also transformed the school. She had the first library built at the college and made more resources available for students, the papers say. Her work led the way for the two-year college to eventually become a four-year university.