Monday, December 04, 2006

Origins of Jefferson School and Public Education in Virginia

( Albemarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727-1976. John Hammond Moore, 1976. The Albemarle County Historical Society. 532 pages. Excerpts from pages 230 to 234. The book’s index references Jefferson School two dozen times across two hundred pages. )

[…]“things” never actually return fully to their old ways, especially after so profound an upheaval as that which convulsed Albemarle during the years 1860 to 1870. In no realm is this more apparent than in public education.

The Freedmen’s schools established in the county faced considerable opposition, but the seed of learning, once planted, was never snuffed out, and in time these institutions and their successors gained recognition as a permanent contribution of Reconstruction years. While hopes of the freedmen for immediate social and political equality were doomed to disappointment, these classrooms, often desperately in need of public funds, nevertheless continued to function.

And, at the same time, their presence fostered grudging acceptance of similar schools for less affluent whites as well. Thus, by a strange twist of fate, the death of slavery, an institution which Thomas Jefferson often deplored, brought into being a program of basic education even more sweeping than the one he once proposed, a development which undoubtedly would have had his wholehearted approval.

Freedmen’s schools were launched in the fall of 1865 with the arrival in Charlottesville of a Yankee schoolmarm, Anna Gardner. These schools were financed mainly by the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society with some assistance from local citizens of both races.

Anna Gardner, fifty years old and member of the seventh generation of a Nantucket family, possessed impeccable abolitionist credentials. At the age of twenty-five she was instrumental in organizing the first antislavery meeting held on her native island.

She subsequently became an avid admirer of William Lloyd Garrison and, with the coming of the war, followed in the wake of Union armies teaching ex-slaves how to read and write. Miss Gardner, who was in the Carolinas for two years before coming to Albemarle, was a lady of tireless energy and real ability and had a sincere regard for the freedmen’s welfare.

She viewed the former master class with proper abolitionist disdain, “those alien and hostile people…primitive in appearance and habits.”

Throughout her five-year sojourn in Charlottesville, she doubted the good intentions of most local whites toward blacks and, once her school was established at “Mudwall,” feared “those subtle, slippery Virginians” would resort to some legal chicanery to close it down. To her the University of Virginia was a place of special wickedness. She constantly deplored its “baleful shadow” over her classrooms and daily expressed fears they might be attacked during a noisy undergraduate calathump, “the terror of the place.”

Reports from Captain William Tidball (1866-67) indicate Miss Gardner’s misgivings were somewhat exaggerated. Influential whites, he said, agreed that immediate education of ex-slaves was a “great necessity,” but he conceded widespread suspicion of public schools existed. […]

In the same report Tidball pointed directly to the major source of local irritation. Whites, he emphasized, resented “the social and political doctrines taught by Miss Gardner and her colleagues.” And, as political passions mounted during the late 1860s, so did resentment.

No doubt exists that such doctrines were being taught since Miss Gardner, in an exchange of letters with the Chronicle’s editor, even boasted of doing so. Early in 1867 she wrote J. C. Southall requesting a donation of printed diplomas for her projected teacher training institution, Jefferson School.

After two years in Charlottesville her appeal begins with these revealing words: “Not knowing any Southerner personally….” Southall replied that he indeed was interested in the Negro’s welfare but feared Miss Gardner was more “political missionary” than teacher. If wrong, he added that he would gladly supply the materials requested free of charge. Within forty-eight hours Southall received this answer.

Mr. J. C. Southall, I teach IN SCHOOL and OUT, so far as my political influence extends, the fundamental principles of “politics” and “sociology” apply, viz. – “Whatever you would that men should do to you, do ye even so unto them.”

Yours in behalf of truth and justice,
Anna Gardner.

This determined Yankee spinster first set up class in “Mudwall,” the old Delevan Hospital. By November 1865, assisted by R. A. Musgrove, a local white who already was operating a tuition school for 32 blacks, the institution had 90 pupils. In this free school special emphasis was placed upon arithmetic and training of the more able as teachers. By April 1866 three more instructors had been added to cope with an enrollment of 241. […]

In March 1867 the Charlottesville schools for freedmen had four teachers and 280 pupils, 100 of them over sixteen years of age. All studied writing and arithmetic, 40 were “in alphabet,” 60 “read easy lessons,” none were yet “in higher branches,” and 30 had been free before the war.

A year later eight day schools were operating within the county, four of them in Charlottesville. In addition there were six Sabbath schools and two night schools located in Charlottesville and Scottsville.

By 1869 enough students had completed elementary work to justify a graded system. Two of the Charlottesville schools became primaries, both taught by freedmen, one of whom (judged by reports [Tidball] submitted) was almost illiterate. Each school had some 60 students and held classes six hours a day, eighteen days per month.

Above these was the intermediate Lincoln School, taught by Philenae Caskie of Boston. It had an enrollment of 50, 27 of them males. Jefferson School, presided over by Miss Gardner, was the capstone of this system. This institution was designed to train teachers. It also had 50 students, with girls slightly outnumbering boys. […]

With the departure of Miss Gardner and her colleagues for colder climes, the Negro schools of Albemarle declined for a time, but within a decade the teachers they trained, aided by the dedication of State Superintendent W. H. Ruffner, created a reasonably adequate system. Ruffner, by the way, received substantial assistance from Professor John B. Minor in drafting the original bill which established the state’s public school system.

The two men met at Minor’s home, Pavilion X on the Lawn at the University of Virginia, in April 1870 and spent four days pouring over legal and technical details. Although the General Assembly later amended their proposals somewhat, in large measure the design of the Old Dominion’s first system of free, public education was fashioned during these discussions. […]

Transcribed by Blair Hawkins December 4, 2006.

“Board votes to split Jefferson Preschool into six parts,” Jan. 18, 2002. The Daily Progress.
“Plans for Jefferson School shelved,” Jan. 31, 2002. The Daily Progress.


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