The Jefferson School had been the venue for celebrations, balls, and anniversaries for generations of African Americans in the Charlottesville community. In 1958, the Jefferson School was at the center of state-led “Massive Resistance,” when public schools throughout the region elected to close rather than integrate. It alone remained open. Following city-wide integration in 1966, the Jefferson School shifted to a variety of uses from the 1970s through 1990s. In 2001, it was formally vacated.

 

In 2002, the Jefferson School was at risk of being sold as a private development. Community leaders and business owners led the charge to protect and restore the School, and at the forefront of the group was Charlottesville native, Martin Burks. He saw it as imperative to preserve the Jefferson School and maintain it as an important symbol to the African American community and an asset for Charlottesville.

SAVING THE SCHOOL

When the City of Charlottesville was trying to figure out what to do with the Jefferson School, the African American community did not want the city to sell it. The African American community wanted to ensure that their history and the history of the school was preserved, particularly since Vinegar Hill was demolished under Urban Renewal in the 1960s. The Jefferson School was the last vestige of the African American history of that bygone era in Charlottesville, and had been a cultural hub before integration. Countless African American celebrations, balls, anniversaries, talent shows, wedding receptions, and organizational events had been held at the Carver Recreation Center for generations.

POSSIBILITY

The school needed to be restored. There needed to be a place that would educate the public about history and the contributions and accomplishments of African Americans to this community and beyond.

 

For a number of years, the school had been an eyesore to the community as it was left vacant after the School Board sold the building back to the city for one dollar. When they learned that the city was considering selling the building for private development, the community called for a task force to study what to do with the Jefferson School. This was comprised of former teachers, past-alumni of the Jefferson School, community leaders and UVA faculty.

“The Jefferson School was the last vestige of the African American history of that bygone era in Charlottesville.”

THE FIRST STEPS

In 2002, the City Council appointed sixteen members to a Jefferson School Task Force and charged it with recommending options for the future. The Task Force included Alumni and other community members. The initial recommendations went back to Council in 2004, and resulted in getting the Jefferson School listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

 

In 2005, this task force determined that a partnership should be formed to revitalize the school. In 2007, the Jefferson School Community Partnership was formed to determine the feasibility of rehabilitating and revitalizing Jefferson School.

 

I was selected by the Partnership as the President. The board and I were given an enormous public trust and responsibility to make sure the Jefferson School would be renovated and become a viable institution that would be an educational, cultural, and wellness hub for everyone in the community.

 

Throughout all this, it was important to have leaders in the African American community that could assure the neighborhood and the community that things were proceeding. Going to church every Sunday, they needed to hear that progress was being made, and that they could trust that the right decisions would be made. This was an essential part to the success of the project, that I spent so much time building trust.

A COMMUNITY EFFORT

There were Alumni from Jefferson High School who had also been involved from the beginning to save the Jefferson School and pushed for the school to be revitalized. Those who played a key role were Teresa Price, Priscilla Whiting, Josephine Morrison, Lelia Brown, Mary Anderson, Ida Lewis, Ann Carter, and Jessie Williams.

 

Under the direction of the Assistant City Manager, Rochelle Toney, the City Council selected members of the community and entrusted them with the responsibility to make the Jefferson School renovation a reality. Those individuals were Steve Blaine, Craig Barton, Ray Carey, Earnie Edwards, Allison Dickie, Genie Keller, Frank Stoner, Bitsy Waters, and Julian Taliaferro.

 

Once the Jefferson School City Center was established, a group of community elders worked tirelessly for the next five years to launch the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Those individuals were: Teresa Price, Mary Reese, John Gaines, Edwina St. Rose, Deborah Bell-Burks and Andrea Douglas.

FUNDING THE PROJECT

The biggest obstacle was financing. It was going to be a $17 million dollar project. Gaining tenants and deciding who would get that space was another challenge. The project really took off when the Blue Moon Fund pledged $3.5 million dollars over five years toward the project. The city had already pledged $6 million dollars. The remainder had to be a loan which we were able to get from Union Bank. All of this ensured that the Federal and State tax credits would be approved.

 

There’s an ability that is necessary to convince others to buy into your vision. In my case, it was to create a vision out of the needs and wants of the community that had been ignored. It could not have been done without the partnership and the Foundation who worked tirelessly to make this vision happen.

JEFFERSON SCHOOL CITY CENTER TODAY AND TOMORROW

The City Center has been restored as a center for eight non-profits and is now a ground-breaking model for private and public funds to venture jointly. It is once again an intergenerational center for history, education, culture, lifelong learning, and wellness.

“The Jefferson School had been a cultural hub before integration and countless African American celebrations, balls, anniversaries, talent shows, wedding receptions, organizational events had been held at the Carver Recreation Center for generations.”

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