Jefferson School prepares African-American cultural center

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Five years after it was designated a historic site, the Jefferson School finally has a starting date for a long-planned redevelopment to preserve its character.

“The plan is to break ground on August 20,” says Martin Burks III, a member of the Jefferson School Community Partnership. “Thirteen months later, the tenants will go into the building and [it will] be fully operational.”

“The Jefferson School represents a past that holds less pain than it does promise, in my opinion,” says former student Patricia Bowler-Edwards.

On April 29, residents from the Starr Hill neighborhood and interested parties met at the school on Fourth Street NW, as members of the partnership offered an overview of site plans for a mixed-use development of the historic structure. “This is a $17.3 million renovation project,” notes Burks, whose mother taught at the Jefferson School. 

Plans for the building include an African-American cultural center, an exhibition and genealogy space, a day care and a local food café. “The anchor tenant in this project is the Heritage Culture Center, who will bring the synergy needed to do right by the Jefferson School,” says Burks.

Since the structure was awarded national historic designation in 2005, renovations have been slow going, to put it mildly. Excavation work completed last year dates the Jefferson in Vinegar Hill to 1894, where it served as a black school until Charlottesville officially integrated in 1964 (a long and arduous process that began a full decade prior). Mixing Classical Revivalist styles with later Modernist materials, the Jefferson School’s only use today is the Carver Recreation Center on the eastern annex, as well as office space for Charlottesville’s public works department.

“The Jefferson School represents a past that holds less pain than it does promise, in my opinion,” says Patricia Bowler-Edwards, a former student at Jefferson who lives just down the street with her husband. 

“I think of people like Rebecca McGinnis, who taught there for many years and lived here in Starr Hill until she was 107 years old. She taught me that I was able to excel regardless of any obstacles,” says Bowler-Edwards. “It was a cohesive community who believed in us.”

Thus far, the city has devoted $5.8 million in capital improvement funds to the Jefferson School project, with additional funding made up of federal and state tax credits, as well as loans and donations made through fundraising efforts by the partnership. 

“Some might ask how wise it is to spend this amount of money at this time,” suggests Bowler-Edwards. “I say we have to go on hope in what we want things to be like. The Jefferson School was and hopefully will continue to be a very special place.” 

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