The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center encapsulates the seminal role played by the quest for and the denial of public education in the history of African-Americans. Promoted by Thomas Jefferson as key to the success of democracy, education was denied to black people in Southern states between 1800 and 1835. Despite this, African-Americans managed to educate themselves surreptitiously, knowing it was the surest route out of the tyranny of their existence. Their struggle, embodied in the center’s past, provides an essential window into this nation’s history.
Though the Jefferson School opened in 1926, it can trace its genesis to a freedmen’s school that opened just four months after the end of the Civil War. The center’s permanent interactive exhibition “Pride Overcomes Prejudice,” opening in September, chronicles the school’s rich history, revealing the resilience and resolve of Charlottesville’s African-American community in the pursuit of education.
Local African-Americans were “deeply engaged in the political process that determined access to education from Reconstruction to the end of the 20th century. “In the case of Charlottesville, their efforts meant pushing back against a system where separate was anything but equal,” said Executive Director Andrea Douglas.
Many don’t realize that the school held an enormous position for Charlottesville and Albemarle’s African- American citizens above and beyond its educational one. Without other options, it became a de facto community center. From plays to concerts, every range of entertainment took place here as well as various social events. The center will continue this tradition, offering the community a place where African-American culture and history is sustained and honored.
State-of-the-art, with all the bells and whistles you would expect in a first class museum, the center allows Douglas enormous latitude in the type of art she can exhibit. Incorporated into the design is a genealogy hub where local residents can trace their family histories, making connections with the larger African-American story of the United States. Here “histories are being questioned, developed, and articulated,” said Douglas. “We have come a long way into defining and undefining what Charlottesville’s black community is supposed to be in the minds of all of those people who think they know.”
Each year, the center will present four temporary exhibitions, monthly lectures, performances and a film series in its Dolby-surround theater. In addition, art and language classes will enable students of all ages to “engage with cultural production that reflects the diversity of our American landscape.”
The focus is mid-career artists like photographer Lola Flash, whose work will be on exhibit through August 30. Based in New York, Flash spent a decade in London where she received her M.A. Her photograph, “Stay afloat, use a rubber” is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Interestingly, Flash happens to have deep roots in Charlottesville: Her great great great grandfather was Berkeley Bullock, a landowner and deacon of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and she traces her family back to Sally Hemings.
Flash’s work deals with issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation, deconstructing pre-conceived notions and stereotypes. She is concerned with the phenomenon of “pigmentocracy” wherein lighter skin is equated with beauty. It’s an issue that exists within the entire African diaspora, whether one is talking about Brazil, Jamaica or the U.S. Aside from the soul-crushing injury such a hierarchy of skin tone does to self image, it also has real socioeconomic ramifications—going back to slavery, for example, where the slaves with lighter skin were assigned to the house, while the darker skinned ones labored in the field.
Flash’s arresting photographs of men and women, shot in London, South Africa, and New York, command attention. Flash keeps the locations intentionally ambiguous, but the subjects all have a unity of style: They’re hip, urban and urbane. With the exception of the light skinned women, gender is blurred—the message being one of desirability. But at least on the outside they don’t seem to be too bothered by these issues. Confident and self-possessed, they appear comfortable in their own skin no matter what its shade. And perhaps the fact that the new generation is more tolerant with respect to sexual orientation and race has a lot to do with this.
Large format (5′ x 4′) C-prints are hung just above eye-level so that you are looking up at them, giving them a position of power. The film border is left intentionally visible signaling that these are not rarefied portraits. Unframed and affixed to the wall with Velcro, there’s an edgy freshness and immediacy to the work. Nothing stands between you and it.
Flash exemplifies exactly what the Center is trying to do. “By concentrating on artists of the diaspora, which you don’t get to see very often in Charlottesville, we’re trying to diversify the city’s arts offerings,” Douglas explained. “We’re not limiting our selection to just American artists. Our desire is to exhibit artists from the Caribbean or from Africa or L.A.—artists whose point of view is so vastly different from an East Coast point of view. The work is going to look different and this will challenge the notion of cultural specificity. Black people are not monolithic. We are not all thinking the same thoughts or needing to have the same set of dialogues that have been prescribed for us. Creating those spaces where these dialogues become multiple and temporal is what I see as the center’s role.”
Lola Flash will give a gallery talk on June 14 at 5:30pm in the African American Heritage Center auditorium.
Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
Through August 30