The Vardy School, completed in 1929 and in operation until the 1970s, was a mission school that offered educational opportunities to members of one of America’s least-known ethnic groups: the Melungeons.
The Melungeons often faced discrimination, both legal and social, and tended to settle in isolated communities such as Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee. The Vardy Community is at the foot of Newman’s Ridge. The district was named after Vardemon Collins, one of the first recorded Melungeon inhabitants, and was first settled around 1780.
The locals worked with the Presbyterian Church to establish the Vardy School Community in 1892. The resulting Vardy School and a neighboring church became the focal points of life for the eight-mile Vardy Valley along Blackwater Creek, on the Tennessee-Virginia state line. By the 1930s and ’40s, when the school was run by Reverend Chester Leonard and Mary Rankin, it was likely the best in Hancock County. Miss Rankin was educated in Scotland, and possessed a nursing degree and a master’s degree in education. She delivered all the babies in the community and conducted home health visits.
Until 1973, the Vardy School provided educational opportunities for students from Vardy, Blackwater Creek, and Newman’s Ridge, as well as in neighboring Lee County, Virginia. Individualized instruction was used in most of the teaching. Students traveled at their own pace. The Geography, History, Bible and Health classes were all illustrated and accompanied with slides and filmstrips. There were movies at night for entertainment.
Writer Libby Killebrew describes Vardy as “a model community, whose
citizens learned strong values from close-knit families, and good skills from a fine school.” Those citizens, Killebrew writes, have been “maligned in the past by journalists exploiting Appalachian stereotypes and myths, and the legend of the ‘mysterious’ Melungeons. Contrary to popular myths, Vardy was actually one of the most progressive communities in our region. [On] average, children graduating from Vardy were ahead of their peers academically.”
The Vardy School Community was the first site in Hancock County to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.