Historic effort: Burley High on its way to landmark status

Local activist Jimmy Hollins, who attended Burley High School (now a middle school, above) when it was “colored-only,” led a campaign for the school to receive landmark status. Photo by Skyclad Aerial Local activist Jimmy Hollins, who attended Burley High School (now a middle school, above) when it was “colored-only,” led a campaign for the school to receive landmark status. Photo by Skyclad Aerial

Last fall, after Burley Middle School unveiled a monument wall listing the names of students who attended the segregated school from 1951 to 1967, local activist Jimmy Hollins began circulating a petition to officially designate it a historic landmark.

Burley is one of three operating Virginia schools that had once been all-black, as it was when Hollins, 71, attended from 1960 to 1965. The Burley Varsity Club, a nonprofit co-founded by Hollins, collected over 500 signatures and sent a letter to the Albemarle County superintendent.

The Albemarle County School Board approved a resolution for the designation February 14. Next, the proposal goes to the Virginia Landmarks Register, which would officially grant historic status to the school. Then, an application would be submitted to the National Register of Historic Places to designate it a national landmark.

Burley’s unique story makes it a strong candidate for historic designation.

In the late 1940s, Charlottesville and Albemarle County decided to build Burley to show proponents of integration that public schools could truly be “separate but equal,” a common strategy in Southern localities at the time. The city and county provided Burley ample funding, hired top-shelf teachers, and distributed substantial resources to its athletic programs–all in the hopes of maintaining segregation.

At first, it seemed as though the plan may have worked. Burley was built to replace Jefferson and Esmont high schools and Albemarle Training School. “I think all the black kids wanted to go to Burley,” says Hollins, who played defensive tackle on the football team. “Charlottesville had police officers and firefighters who went to Burley, and UVA nursing school worked to get black nurses for UVA hospital from Burley.”

But the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1954 unanimous Brown v. Board of Education ruling, determined that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” because segregating black children on the basis of race “generates a feeling of inferiority…in a way unlikely to ever be undone,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren. Regardless of quality, schools would have to integrate.

In the years between Brown and Hollins’ first year at Burley, Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr. shifted his efforts to actively resisting integration, temporarily closing Venable Elementary and Lane High schools in 1958 to avoid admitting black students. But his efforts were repeatedly quashed by mandatory desegregation orders from federal courts, and in 1959, the first black students enrolled at Lane and Venable.

Facing yearly declines in enrollment, Burley converted to a school for seventh graders from the overflowing Jack Jouett Junior High in 1967, then reopened as an integrated middle school in 1973.

Jeff Werner, historic designation and design planner with the city, decided to team up with Hollins after discovering they had a common interest: Since Burley Middle School is squarely within the Rose Hill neighborhood, designating the school could help the effort to preserve the entire historically black area, which has many homes dating from 1900 to 1930.

Werner inherited the project of designating Rose Hill a historic district from his predecessor, Mary Joy Scala.

Last summer, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources deemed Rose Hill eligible for historic status. This has granted special protections, since eligibility alone requires state agencies to take steps to mitigate potential damages when working in the district, even though its status has not yet changed.

Designating Burley a historic landmark “really changes the narrative,” Werner says. “Think about what that means to these individuals. That’s invaluable.”

Hollins concurs. “If I could go back to Burley I would do it all over again,” he says. “It was a family.” And one with a proud history, including the Burley Bears’ 1956 undefeated football season, which Hollins wants to make sure is not forgotten.