Saturday, January 05, 2008

2007: The Jefferson School Rule

Charlottesville, Virginia—On July 12, The Daily Progress policy to allow only opinion-based letters was discovered when I wrote a letter to correct a July 6 article giving 1894 as the original date of Jefferson School, instead of 1865. Over the phone, Editorial Page Editor Anita Shelburne said she had not decided whether to print the letter because it’s “fact-based.”

On hearing that, I asked if I was speaking to Anita Shelburne. I thought I might have been speaking to an intern. Shelburne has declined to print several other letters I’ve submitted but has printed more than refused. I said I would read the letter at the next City Council meeting since Jefferson School was on the agenda.

Four days later, I delivered that speech. The newspaper has not yet corrected the July 6 story.

In the preamble to the speech, when I told the part about excluding fact-based letters, Councilor Kendra Hamilton raised an eyebrow in disbelief. She was quoted in the original article along with former assistant city manager Rochelle Small-Toney, who passed along the 1894 date while knowing the correct date of 1865.

C-ville Weekly and The Hook have also printed this false information and not made a correction. History is watching to see how long it takes and how much pressure to have the full heritage of the school recorded. The reporters may choose to believe government officials over a simple blogger.

But what about the Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society? Do they say 1894? No. An article in the 2006 Historical magazine details the all-black school’s opening in 1865 and the tumultuous years that followed. A 1976 book commissioned by the Society also details the 1865 origins as part of a larger history.

Jefferson School was a private school. Before 1870 there were no public schools in Virginia. The astounding success of Jefferson in the first few years made national news as school principal Anna Gardner sent reports and student writing samples to the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society, which funded the school.

The fact is Virginia’s white public schools were modeled after Jefferson School.

Why can’t The Daily Progress allow this fact to be printed? Do they believe reporters have the facts and readers have only opinions—or what they want us to believe? When a given reason doesn’t make sense, we look for other explanations.

If someone else had written the exact same letter, say President of the Historical Society, would they have printed it?

The fact is The Daily Progress has known the correct date for at least 8 years. When I ran for City Council in 2000, my education essay in The Observer suggested the early days of Jefferson School as a model to reform public schools, a return to our roots. The printed essay was the most requested pamphlet of the campaign, a rare document telling a piece of history known only to a few people.

The Jefferson School Rule is but one of many examples of how our newspapers are not recording and sharing our history. It’s not that they don’t know. The omissions are intentional. The motives can only be speculated.

From time to time you read or hear people say how racist Charlottesville happens to be. This is the latest example of how deep the hatred runs. We’d rather our schools not have history than to know they were modeled on a black school.

So in 2002 when the school closed, the fear that City Council intended to demolish Jefferson School was real and palpable, with many precedents. In 2007, Council donated the school building to a non-profit for preservation and redevelopment—two opposing goals. Renovations could begin in 2009 for the schoolhouse built 1926 and expanded 1958 on 4th Street NW just west of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood cleared 1964.

(This article is the second in a series of retrospectives from 2007. 2006 in Review: Another Year of Inconvenient truths ahead", Jan. 8, 2007.)

Jefferson School 1865-2002, this incarnation 1926

Jefferson School historical marker

Site of first Jefferson School, now First Baptist Church at 632 West Main. Barracks for union troops between church and Union Depot train station site of 2nd (1866) and 3rd (1869) Jefferson School.

Brief History of Jefferson School, Apr. 26, 2000, The Observer,

Plea to save Jefferson School on WINA Jan. 25, 2002

The city wants to get rid of Jefferson because the school symbolizes that black people are not stupid and they do not need permission to be successful. Ever since the Supreme Court ordered desegregation in the '50s, the city has conducted a systematic program to encourage black people to move away by taking their property and, then, to erase the black history by destroying that property...

“$1 million Jefferson School makeover: Council hears 3 B.A.R. appeals” Jun. 19, 2006

“Council refuses to release urban renewal archives: Jefferson School conflict of interest: Blighted House has until Feb 15”, Nov. 21, 2006

“Origins of Jefferson School and Public Education in Virginia”, Dec. 4, 2006

“Urban renewal archives now open to public by appointment: Letter from assistant city manager”, Dec. 11, 2006

“2006 Review: Another year of inconvenient truths ahead”, Jan. 8, 2007

“First Baptist Church site of first Jefferson School”, Feb. 25, 2007

“Asst city manager Small-Toney resigns, blocked access to public records”, May 23, 2007

“Jefferson School: The Original Model for Public Education in Virginia”, July 16, 2007. Letter to Daily Progress and Speech before City Council

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....


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