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Thursday, August 24, 2023

August 24, 2023: Cville Places: The Jefferson School

[For this year’s installment of my annual Charlottesville series—following the boys and my annual trip to my childhood home, natch—I’ll focus on a handful of representative places around town. Leading up to a tribute to the public schools that nurtured this AmericanStudier!]

On what a historic educational place can tell us about three distinct 20th century eras.

1)      The 1920s: As I’ve written about at length both in this space and elsewhere, it was in the 1920s that Charlottesville erected its infamous white supremacist statues, one of many illustrations of how the second Ku Klux Klan and all it represented had most definitely come to town (or more exactly had been there all along). But the ‘20s were also the era of the Harlem Renaissance, of the continuing legacies of the Great Migration (which meant not only movement between regions but also the search for opportunities and freedoms all over the country), and overall of an African American community willing and able to stand up for its communal rights and needs. And in Charlottesville, members of that community successfully petitioned the City Council in 1926 to create a high school for Black students, who previously had had no educational option beyond 8th grade in town. That school, the product of the best of Cville (and America) in an era too often defined by the worst, was the Jefferson School.

2)      The 1940s: It took some time for the school to become a full community of its own (although even a bare bones high school was a vast improvement to be sure), but by the 1940s it was as thriving and vibrant a community as any high school could be. It had a Dramatics Club with over 100 members, a music department with a full band (that performed in 1941 at tomorrow’s focal place, the Paramount Theater) and a trio of choral ensembles, multiple sports teams that traveled the state (with the band traveling with the football team), and its own newspaper The Jeffersonian that included not only writers and editors but advertising and circulation managers. It also of course had a high school yearbook, Crimson and Black, and I believe that yearbook’s 1944 dedication reflects just how much this (by which I mean both the school and the African American community) was both an inspiring community in its own right and a powerful part of the era’s American landscape: “To the boys of Jefferson High School who have willingly answered the call of our country and who are serving in the armed forces to bring to our land once more a lasting peace.”

3)      1958: I need to be very, very clear, however: even the most vibrant segregated school was still a segregated school, still a particularly striking embodiment of Jim Crow’s discrimination against young African Americans. Clearly Charlottesville’s African American community felt the same, as in September 1958, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education and Little Rock, a number of Jefferson School students and their families applied to white-only schools (high schools and elementary schools) across the city. As I’ve written about at length, the Charlottesville schools literally shut down, closed to all students, rather than admit these African American students, one of the nation’s most extreme examples of massive resistance. They remained closed for a year, but the writing was on the wall, both for segregated education in the city and thus (happily, but nonetheless) for the Jefferson School. But it has remained standing, used occasionally as a substitute school in the city and always as a historic site, one featuring for example placards that commemorate “The Triumph of the Charlottesville Twelve” (the first dozen students who pushed for integration). One more vital and inspiring memory housed in the Jefferson School.

Last Cville place tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Defining places—from your hometowns or anywhere else—you’d highlight?

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