Jefferson School City Center: celebrating heritage, serving the community

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Jefferson School City Center: celebrating heritage, serving the community

It’s a place that makes retired librarian and community activist Teresa Price “extremely proud.” A place that from 1926 through the mid-1960s served African-American schoolchildren like her, giving them the excellent education they were denied elsewhere. Today the big two-story brick building just down the hill from Main Street on 4th Street, NW in Charlottesville is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to nine non-profit educational and service organizations. Most fittingly, a large, handsome, second floor space belongs to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a dynamic link to the building’s rich history.

Reopened in December 2012 after an $18 million renovation, what is now called the Jefferson School City Center lays claim to being “Charlottesville’s premier intergenerational community center.” Come to the old school on a weekday morning and you’ll see children playing, seniors socializing, and mothers working out. Come back in the evening and you’ll find adults taking college classes, learning to cook, and learning to read.

History

Founded in 1865 with help from a missionary group that provided teachers for newly freed slaves, the Jefferson School was originally based in one room of a West Main Street hotel, previously a hospital for Confederate veterans. In 1869 the school grew to three grades and moved close by the Charlottesville train station. 1894 saw the construction of a two-story schoolhouse at the corner of Fourth and Commerce Streets (now part of the Center’s parking lot), for kids through Grade 8. The current structure was built in 1926 and became one of six accredited black high schools in Virginia. (When Burley High School opened in 1951 to relieve overcrowding, Jefferson School reverted to an elementary school.) Further expansion followed in 1938 and 1958, and in 1959 came the addition of the Carver Recreation Center, still part of the facility today. At the start of the 1965-66 school year, with formerly white Charlottesville schools now integrated, the first white students entered Jefferson. The school finally closed in 1992.

“The fact that this school has been in our community for so long allows us to tell a history that is essentially the modern history of America,” says Andrea Douglas, the Heritage Center’s executive director. Because the 1958-59 extension to the school “was added in response to this notion of separate but equal,” the very building itself “is a physical reminder of Massive Resistance.”

It’s a reminder, as well, to the school’s former students, of a community’s strength – of the able, pragmatic and selfless manner with which it coped with injustice. “There was a moment in history where African-Americans in Charlottesville could not receive education past the 7th grade,” Douglas notes, “and the teachers prepared them with 8th grade education so they could go on to other places.” Similarly, high school education for African-Americans stopped at the 11th grade, but Jefferson School teachers prepared their students for college. Jefferson was a school, Douglas says, “that responded to a community’s desire to educate itself and do so in a way that was not just about learning industrial skills, but really thinking about classical or academic education that prepared them for secondary education. They tried to achieve that at great cost.” Jefferson today then, “represents a deep, deep, deep concern and understanding of community and the importance of education to community building. It is and was the center of that community for those kinds of reasons.”

Naturally, as Douglas observes, former Jefferson students remember the school “as a place where they were cared for.” It was a place “where their education was meaningful in that the teachers cared that they succeeded even in times where the kind of education that they were receiving was insufficient in terms of the kinds of books that they were receiving, the kinds of materials that they had to work with. The teachers worked as hard as they could to make sure that they were prepared to go on in life, to be successful in life.”

That’s certainly how Price recalls it. “I loved school, so I enjoyed the classroom, and most of all I loved my teachers,” she says. “If there was a need – if the students said that they would like to study a certain thing – you’d look around and a teacher would have been to summer school and become certified and would come back and begin that course at the high school.” A course in business education, for example. “With 11 grades, you’re going to have to cram in a lot of things to prepare students for college, so they needed business in the curriculum and that teacher went to summer school a couple of summers and became certified to teach that course.”

“In every career when there’s a success, you can point to some teacher,” Price says, looking back. That industrious business teacher was her favorite. “When I went to college” (at Hampton Institute, now Hampton University), “I chose that as a career.” Although she’d been given only 11 years of schooling, Price was well prepared. “I didn’t feel inadequate, she says. “I recognized that I was competing with students who had completed 12 grades and had taken many more courses than I had, but I finished with honors.” Price went on to become Charlottesville’s first African-American librarian in a public school, and a prime mover in the successful effort to save and repurpose the Jefferson building.

Heritage

Today visitors to the Heritage Center can discover some of the former school’s remarkable history. The Center’s mission, Douglas says, is “to represent the rich heritage of the African-American community in Charlottesville and Albemarle, and also to represent the culture of the people of the diaspora locally and nationally and internationally. The fact that this school has been in our community for so long allows us then to tell a history that is essentially the modern history of America.”

Already the Center tells the story of Jefferson School through the 1920s, in Part One of an exhibition called “Pride Overcomes Prejudice.” Drawn from the oral and written histories of students who participated in local, regional, and national struggles for racial equality, the free exhibition will eventually total six sections, each corresponding to a particular era in the school’s history and strategically placed to create a walking tour of the building and grounds.

“The Heritage Center, if we can continue to develop it, will be a well-grounded intellectual force of African-American history,” Price says. “Dr. Douglas is very well-qualified, and she can think of more things to do than you can shake a stick at.” Things like greens cook-offs and poetry slams, concerts, story times and lectures, and exhibitions by contemporary African-American artists. Through December the Center’s contemporary gallery is showing 14 mixed media images by Charlottesville percussionist Darrell Rose—works influenced by mid-century European painting as well as by pan-African culture. A show of prints by nationally celebrated sculptor Melvin Edwards is planned for 2016.

An Edwards sculpture will have a permanent place at the Center. The New York artist has been commissioned to create a monument to Garrett and Vinegar Hill, predominantly African-American Charlottesville neighborhoods razed in the mid-60s under the now discredited guise of “urban renewal.” A maquette of the planned 12-foot tall, stainless steel work may be seen just outside the Heritage Center.

“We are in the midst of fundraising for the sculpture,” Douglas says. “We are writing an NEA grant and garnering local support. The total cost is $350,000. Once it is raised, we will move directly to fabrication and installation. Having a sculpture by an artist of this caliber will really signal a lot about Charlottesville and its interest in honoring its past and signaling the future.”

Past and future meet today in the work of nurture and education carried on not only by the Heritage Center but by other Jefferson School City Center partners such as Common Ground Healing Arts, Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle, Martha Jefferson Starr Hill Health Center, Piedmont Virginia Community College and The Women’s Initiative. Carver Recreational Center includes a fitness center, gymnasium, drop-in Teen Center and banquet room, and offers a wide variety of recreational programs.

Piedmont Family YMCA Intergenerational Learning serves 60 young children a day—80 in the summertime—filling a previous need in the neighborhood for child care services. “We use a creative curriculum, the same as the Head Start and Bright Stars programs use,” says director Michelle Ryan. “It is wonderful to be working here because of the great partnerships that we have. Common Ground does yoga with our preschoolers every week. We go to the African-American Heritage Center every month for a great story time. The kids go up there and look at all the art displays; sometimes they’ll have music going on, so we will participate. We do activities with JABA. The seniors will come down here, rock the babies, do crafts with the preschoolers, and we also go down to their space. They have a piano and their own chorus. In December we sing Christmas songs with them. So just be being in this location we get to participate in lot of things we normally would not do. That’s pretty special.”

“It’s very rewarding,” Ryan says, “when we have families that come in and say ‘I went to his school.’ We have chairs from the original building in our lobby. They’ll come and sit in them and they’ll say ‘Oh, I remember sitting in these chairs.’ They’ll tell me ‘This used to be the principal’s office, and I used to spend a lot of time there.’ So they all have their stories to tell us, and that’s really nice.”

At JABA’s Mary Williams Community Center, independent seniors 60 and older meet Monday through Thursday to socialize, exercise and enjoy hot lunches. “We have tai-chi, yoga, arthritis exercise and walking programs,” says manager Kelly Carpenter. “We sing. We do art. We bring in local resources to provide information to the seniors – it might be a resource on insurance counseling. We have devotional activities and Bible study, and we play a lot of games and do memory exercises and brain exercises. Some days there are inter-generational activities with kids from the Y.”

“Intergenerational” nicely describes today’s Jefferson School City Center, as it bridges centuries, age groups and communities. In 2014 the Heritage Center alone counted seven thousand visits. Today Price volunteers there once a week, greeting visitors and answering questions. Back in the day, she says, “Most of the activities we embraced were from the school. Between Jefferson and church, that made up our lives until we left to go to the city and to college. I’m so glad that we were able to save that building. It’s the last vestige of the African-American experience in Charlottesville. It means a lot to everybody now. It’s an American story.”

By Ken Wilson