Monday, July 16, 2007

Jefferson School: The Original Model for Public Education in Virginia

Opening remarks: My name is Blair Hawkins. I live at [address]. I’m here to talk about some of the history of Jefferson School since there’s an important vote on that subject tonight. We should know what we’re trying to preserve. I’d like to read a letter I’ve written to The Daily Progress. The editor Anita Shelburne has not decided whether to print the letter because it’s fact-based. That’s how much power this history has, the power to cause a newspaper to consider a new policy to allow only opinion-based letters. Dear Editor:

The legacy of Jefferson School is every public school in Virginia today.

Your article (“City mindful of preserving legacy” by Seth Rosen. The Daily Progress. Jul. 6, 2007) traces the history to 1894 and says the Jefferson Alumni Association wants to preserve the legacy of the all-black school as a social hub of Vinegar Hill in the 1950s.

The Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society has published a fuller history at least twice in thirty years. (Albemarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727-1976 by John Hammond Moore. 1976, pages 230-234 in the hardcover edition. And “Learning in the Charlottesville Freedmen’s School: the First Jefferson School” by Gayle M. Schulman. The Magazine of Albemarle County History, Vol. 64, 2006, pages 76-107.)

Both accounts agree on the main facts. Jefferson School opened in the fall of 1865 and was indeed the model for white public schools when the General Assembly approved public education in 1869. Charlottesville’s first public school opened in 1870 on Garrett Street.

In its first year, Jefferson School held classes at the Colored First Baptist Church (organized 1863) at 632 West Main in the 1820s Delevan Hotel/Civil War hospital eventually torn down for the existing 1883 church building.

Classes moved to a series of one-room barracks just west at Union Depot when federal troops left in June 1866. A new school was built on this site in 1869. Jefferson School was funded by the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society until 1875, when it became a public school. Benjamin Tonsler was already an alumnus and the fourth principal when the 1894 schoolhouse opened. The first two principals, who also taught full-time, were white women: Anna Gardner 1865-1871, and Philena Carkin, 1871-1875, both from Massachusetts. The 1926 building and later additions survive. The school has been closed since 2002.

I want to preserve the 1950s history and the 1860s history. In the future, we’ll look back on today and wonder why some people found it so difficult to acknowledge the full history of Jefferson School, even while claiming to preserve that same legacy.

Blair Hawkins
July 8, 2007. Charlottesville, Virginia

Letters, The Daily Progress, P.O. Box 9030, Charlottesville, VA 22906

July 12. Editorial Page Editor Anita Shelburne had not decided whether to print the letter because it’s “fact-based.”
July 16. Delivery as speech before Charlottesville City Council. Night of vote to transfer Jefferson School to a private foundation for preservation and redevelopment.

For more local history that’s too true for other media outlets, visit my blog:


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