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Virginia's landmark Indian school currently under renovation

KING WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. - Members of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe continue with renovations of its historic school building.

The Sharon Indian School, initially established in 1919 by the Upper Mattaponi tribal council, provided education to the Upper Mattaponi and some Rappahannock Indians before closing in the 1960s.

In 2007, the school building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, being one of the last Indian schools in Virginia in operation during integration. In 2006, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources listed the school on the Virginia Landmarks Register.

With renovations under way, the tribe has applied for grants to help pay for the school's restoration. In the meantime, the Upper Mattaponi Indians have been working on the building themselves, receiving help from a Methodist mission group in western Virginia as well as the Women's Intertribal Circle, a local American Indian women's organization.

''We actually have a long way to go, but we've come a long way with the renovations,'' said Kenneth Adams, Upper Mattaponi chief. ''We're trying to get as much restored to its original condition as possible.''

Adams, who assisted in the historic designation applications' preparation during the past several years, said he was pleased that the Sharon Indian School was listed on both the state and national registers for historic places. To continue with the tribe's work, Adams and other Upper Mattaponi members will spend a weekend in March working on the restoration.

''What we have done so far is torn out the paneling on the walls, and we've actually taken out most of the stuff that needs to be removed,'' he said. ''The exterior hasn't changed, though.''

The original Sharon Indian School, a wood-frame, one-room building, was erected in 1919 and replaced with a more modern, brick facility in 1952. Once integration began in the 1960s, the Upper Mattaponi students then began attending the King William County public schools. At that time, Adams said, the tribe lost its school.

''According to oral tradition, the elders said the school and the land it was on were to be returned to the tribe if the school was closed,'' he said. ''That didn't happen, but the tribe petitioned the county in 1986 to have the building returned, and it was returned to the tribe in 1987.''

For a long time, the Sharon Indian School building was used by King William County as well as other organizations for offices, Adams said. The building is located on the Upper Mattaponi tribal property, which is not far from the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian reservations.

Adams, who attended the Sharon Indian School for 10 years, said he has many memories of the school. Once integration began, Adams finished his last two years at King William County High School.

What is most important about the tribe's school and church, Indian View Baptist Church, is that they were the center of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, Adams said.

''They were extremely important because the school and church helped the Upper Mattaponi exist as a tribe of Indians,'' Adams said. ''If it wasn't for the school and church at that time, we would have been very scattered. The school and church together were key for the sustenance of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe.''

The Sharon Indian School, however, was not the Upper Mattaponi Tribe's first school. The tribe had a school as early as the 1880s, Adams said. In 1892, the King William County school superintendent asked for federal funds to support the Upper Mattaponi School.

''There was a school that existed in the 1880s,'' Adams said. ''It didn't stay open for a long time, but federal funds were requested to support the school.''

During its operation, the Sharon Indian School offered elementary education and limited secondary education. The Indians seeking to complete high school had to attend other American Indian, private or public schools outside of the state, according to the state Department of Historic Resources.

''I think the school is going to look great when it's finished,'' Adams said. ''Overall, the renovations are going well.''