Jefferson School

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The Jefferson School was a title first given to the Freedmen's Bureau school for Black Charlottesville residents in 1867; the current building was built as a public high school in 1926 to serve the Black population of the city and beyond. [1]

Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the school is the site of the Carver Recreation Center and the other tenants of the Jefferson School City Center as part of a $17 million project, $5.8 million of which was funded through city tax dollars.[2]


Jefferson School.JPG

Jefferson Graded School

The term "Jefferson School" was first used in 1867 to refer to the Freedmen's School established in Charlottesville in the fall of 1865. The school itself was located near the train tracks and Delevan Hotel, and was led by a Quaker woman from New England, Anna Gardner. By the time it was being referred to as the Jefferson School, there were over 200 Black students enrolled and four teachers.[3]

In January of 1871 the Albemarle County School Board agreed to transition the school out of its federally-funded status into a state-backed segregated school. The last white teacher, Philena Carkin, left Charlottesville in 1875. In the 1880s, it was led by Benjamin Tonsler, who had once been a student of the Freedmen's School. The school only went up to the eighth grade, which was the same as the white school at the time.

When the city of Charlottesville decided to open a whites-only high school, Midway School, in 1890, the Black community started its efforts to open a Black high school as well, an idea that the Charlottesville School Board expressed no interest in. In the meantime though, the School Board began to plan to build a new Jefferson Graded School, this time to Fourth Street NW, which was more centrally located between two Black communities in Charlottesville. The new building opened in 1895, but still had no high school department. [3]

Cora Murray Duke taught at the school for over 52 years and served as principal of the Elementary, Primary, and High Schools for some time afterwards before retiring in 1947 and being made principal emeritus.

Jefferson High School

In the decades after the high school opened at Midway School, Black students in Charlottesville still had no means of attending a publicly-funded high school. If they wanted to go to high school, they had to move away from home and pay for their education instead. Teachers at the Jefferson School sought to remedy this by teaching accelerated courses, but these classes could not count towards any sort of official high school diploma. Any education above the eighth grade would almost certainly have to be at a private institution like Hampton University.

Benjamin Tonsler and Jefferson School graduates, 1908.

The push for a Black high school was in full force by the mid-1910s, as the new pastor of the First Baptist Church, Rev. C.M. Long, arrived in 1914 and began actively organizing Black parents and community members to demand a new school, which made him incredibly unpopular with the white population of Charlottesville. Rev. Long left First Baptist in 1921, so Thomas J. Inge and Jackson P. Burley, took over.[3] In 1921 or 1922, 85 prominent Black community members signed and sent a petition to the Charlottesville School Board that asked for a high school to be built to accommodate the hundreds of Black students who were otherwise forced to pay to learn. That year, the new Superintendent of Charlottesville Schools, James G. Johnson, signaled to the Board that he believed the city should undertake the construction of several new schools, white and Black, to relieve overcrowding.

Instead of just expanding the Graded School, the City decided to construct a new building on the same campus, with the entrance facing Commerce Street, a thoroughfare between the Vinegar Hill and Starr Hill neighborhoods. The high school finally opened in February of 1926, with the first graduating class of 24 students finishing in 1930.[3] At the time it opened, it was one of only ten high schools for Black students in the state of Virginia.[4]

The high school curriculum provided students with a classical education in English, math, science, history, and languages. Electives like home economics and industrial arts were available for workforce-bound students. School-wide assemblies were common, as teachers used them to enrich classrooom learning. In addition to the prescribed subjects, teachers ensured that every student learned Black history and culture in and outside the classroom. Athletics were available as well, and the community regularly held fundraisers to support teams' travel expenses.[3]

In 1951, the opening of Jackson P. Burley High School meant that Black high schoolers now had a much larger facility available nearby, so the Jefferson School campus reverted back to an elementary school.

Jefferson Elementary School

From 1951 until 1958, the Jefferson school campus operated only as an elementary school for grades 1-7, with high schoolers going to Burley. In 1958, Governor Almond's policy of Massive Resistance closed all of the public schools in Charlottesville instead of integrating them. During the closure, construction work added classroom space and demolished the former Jefferson Graded School that was still on the property.

The beginning of the 1959 school year saw nine Black children enrolling in Venable Elementary School instead of Jefferson for the first time. Over the next three years, Black elementary students could be transferred into white schools that were geographically closer to them - but could not transfer to a white school if they were closest to Jefferson. This plan of containment meant that only token desegregation occurred at the elementary level in Charlottesville.[3] Gradually, Jefferson's enrollment declined until 1965, when it was used as a junior high school for both Black and white students while permanent junior high schools were built.[5]

From 1975 until 1992, the Jefferson School building was used to house elementary schools that were undergoing renovations.

On August 1, 2011, the Jefferson School Community Partnership signed paperwork for a $12 million loan.[6] The city of Charlottesville loaned the project $5.7 million through the Charlottesville Economic Development Authority.


A Jefferson School Task Force was created in April 2002 and reported to Council in February 2003,[7] June 2003,[8] and January 2004.[9][10]

Carver Recreation Center

On the south end of the building, Carver Rec hosts a gymnasium with roller skating and volleyball programs, a kitchen, craft room, dance room, gymnastics room and "kids zone". Carver is one of several recreation centers run by the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Protected status

On April 18, 2011, City Council voted to approve a request to have the school listed as an individually protected property. That requires any plans to modify the structure to come before the Board of Architectural Review and the City Council.[2]

Historic Marker

There is a Virginia Department of Historic Resources Historical Highway Marker on-site (Q-30):[11]

The name Jefferson School has a long association with African American education in Charlottesville. It was first used in the 1860s in a Freedmen's Bureau school and then for a public grade school by 1894. Jefferson High School opened here in 1926 as the city's first high school for blacks, an early accredited black high school in Virginia. The facility became Jefferson Elementary School in 1951. In 1958, some current and former Jefferson students requested transfers to two white schools. The state closed the two white schools. Their reopening in 1959 began the process of desegregation in Charlottesville. Jefferson School housed many different educational programs after integrating in 1965. Department of Historic Resources, 2003.

Description from National Register of Historic Places registration form:[12]

The site of the “New Jefferson School”, today known as Jefferson School and Carver Recreation Center, is located at 233 Fourth Street, NW in Charlottesville, Virginia, and sits on a lot that runs the length of an entire city block. The large two-story brick building was constructed in four sections with the earliest in 1926 and additions in 1938-39, 1958, and 1959. The oldest portion of the school was designed by Norfolk–based architect Charles Calrow and forms the façade of the building facing Commerce Street. The 1938-1939, two-story, rear addition, containing primarily classrooms, was designed by architects William E. Stainback and Louis A. Brown, Jr. and was partially funded by the Public Works Administration (PWA). Two more additions were made to the north end of the building in the late 1950s, both designed by Baker, Heyward and Llorens Architects of Charlottesville. The 1958 portion contains primarily additional classroom space, and the 1959 portion, now known as the Carver Recreation Center, includes the large gymnasium that is the present northern terminus of the building. The 3.971-acre site on which Jefferson School and Carver Recreation Center is located includes a playground and grassy area northeast of the school as well as a large parking lot along the entire east side of the building.
The first African-American school to stand on the property was located east of the present building, on land which has become part of the current parking lot. It was a two-and-one-half-story brick structure constructed in 1894 and known as the Jefferson Colored Graded/Elementary School and was demolished in 1959. A section of a low brick wall, which may be part of the 1894 original school building, is located at the Fourth Street parking lot entrance of Jefferson School. Archaeological investigations have not been conducted on the site but are planned for the near future.
The earliest portion of the current Jefferson School was constructed in 1926, after members of the community had petitioned the Superintendent and the City School Board for a high school for the city’s colored youth. The new school was built adjacent to the older building, which remained on the site until 1959, when it was demolished.
The architectural history of Jefferson School and Carver Recreation Center spans more than three decades. The school is a remarkably well-preserved example of the evolution of typical public school designs of this era. Much of the building’s interior woodwork, flooring, and wall treatments as well as the windows and exterior detailing from the various building periods are still intact. The earliest portion features a U-shaped corridor on the main level with classrooms radiating off one side, as well as a central auditorium. The 1938-1939 addition created an enclosed open-air courtyard at the rear of the original building as well as providing additional classroom space and a library. While the 1958 addition provided mainly classrooms, the 1959 addition provided a large gymnasium and athletic facilities on the upper level for Jefferson School and an auditorium and rooms for Carver Recreation Center on the lower level. Following the full integration of educational facilities in Charlottesville in 1965, Jefferson School continued to accommodate educational activities as well as to house various city offices. The Carver Recreation Center remains in the building, now occupying the upper and lower floors, and continues to serve the greater Charlottesville community.



Faculty and staff


  1. Web. Jefferson School Set for Rezone?, Rachana Dixit, Daily Progress, Media General, April 12, 2010, retrieved February 15, 2022.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Web. Jefferson School may get local historic designation, Rachana Dixit, Daily Progress, Media General, December 12, 2010, retrieved February 15, 2022.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Book. [ Pride Over Prejudice]
  4. Web. Our History
  5. Web. Jefferson School History
  6. Web. Finally: Jefferson School ready for renovation, Lisa Provence, The Hook, Better Publications LLC, August 23, 2011, retrieved February 15, 2022. Print. August 25, 2011 , 1034, .
  7. Web. Charlottesville City Council meeting minutes, .pdf, Council Chambers, City of Charlottesville, February 3, 2003.
  8. Web. Charlottesville City Council meeting minutes, .pdf, Council Chambers, City of Charlottesville, June 16, 2003.
  9. Web. Charlottesville City Council meeting minutes, .pdf, Council Chambers, City of Charlottesville, January 20, 2004.
  10. Web. Bringing Life Back to Historic Jefferson School: Recommendations of the Jefferson School Task Force, January 2004, retrieved May 16, 2024.
  11. Web. Marker Online Database Search
  12. Kalbian, Maral S. Jefferson School National Register of Historic Places registration form. Charlottesville: Jefferson School. 15 Aug. 2005. City of Charlottesville. 18 June 2009 <>.