Excerpt from Jefferson School National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, August 15, 2005
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Jefferson School is not only a familiar landmark in the Starr Hill neighborhood of downtown Charlottesville, but it is also officially recognized by the United States Department of Interior, National Park Service as having historic significance and is therefore listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The history of this large two-story brick building, which was built in four sections in 1926, 1938-39, 1958 and 1959, begins even before it was constructed. The Jefferson School history begins in 1865.
At the end of the Civil War, the New England Freedmen's Aid Society sent a teacher, Anna Gardner, to Charlottesville to open a school for former slaves. She named the school, “Jefferson School” after the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson, whom she admired. In 1865, the first Jefferson School was a one-room school in the Delevan Hotel on West Main Street that had served as a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers. In 1869, the school grew to three grades and moved to a building near the Charlottesville train station. And, in 1894, land at the corner of Fourth and Commerce Streets (now part of the school's current parking lot), was transferred to the City for the construction of the Jefferson Colored Graded/Elementary School. It provided instruction through Grade 8 and served the African American community well until 1926.
Considering the Jefferson Graded School only taught through 8th grade, and no high school classes were offered to African Americans at that time, families were forced to send their children away to schools outside of Charlottesville. Because of these conditions, in 1924 parents and community leaders petitioned the City school board for a high school for African American students. That same year, the City agreed to build a high school that would house three high school grades for African American students.
Jefferson High School, completed in 1926, was one of only ten African American high schools in Virginia at that time.
The two schools, Jefferson Graded School and Jefferson High School, stood in the Starr Hill neighborhood on the western edge of Vinegar Hill, a predominantly African American neighborhood that contained residential, commercial and civic buildings that served as Charlottesville's economic and social core for blacks during the first half of the 20th century. In the 1920s, Vinegar Hill was in its prime as an African American commercial and residential neighborhood.
As the demand and student population grew, as well as the African American community's desire for pubic library services, the high school underwent its first expansion between 1938 and 1939. The expansion included an open air courtyard, additional classroom space and a library; all built through the use of Federal Public Works funds.
Once again by the end of the 1940s, the African American student population had outgrown its school and in 1950 Albemarle County agreed to build a new high school to serve African American students from both the city and the county. The new school, Jackson P. Burley, located on Rose Hill Drive in the City, opened in 1951 with a student body of 541, and Jefferson high School ceased to function as a secondary school. Jefferson became known as Jefferson Elementary School, housing African American students in grades 1 to 7.
Jefferson School's history parallels the development of public education in Virginia from its years of segregated school facilities through the tumultuous years of desegregation from 1954 to 1970.
In 1958, the Virginia Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., acting on Massive Resistance legislation enacted by the legislature, took control of two previously all white schools in Charlottesville, Venable Elementary and Lane High School and closed them, all to avoid integration as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Virginia was the first state and Charlottesville among the first Virginia communities in the nation to have any of its schools closed to avoid integration.