Benjamin Tonsler

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Benjamin E. Tonsler (1854 - 1917) was one of Charlottesville's most prominent African American citizens and local educator between 1895 and his death in 1917. Tonsler Park, located in the Fifeville neighborhood, was named in his honor.

Benjamin E. Tonsler
Funeral flowers of Benjamin E. Tonsler, March 10, 1917.

Early life

Tonsler was born on April 2, 1854 near the small community of Earlysville in Albemarle County.

Scholastic education

Tonsler attended the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute located in Hampton, Virginia, a school established to educate freedmen and their descendants. Booker T. Washington also attended the Hampton Institute, one of the first all-black schools in America.[1]

Educational career

Tonsler returned to Charlottesville in the 1880's. He became an educator at the Jefferson Graded School from its opening in 1895 until his death in 1917. While at the Jefferson Graded School (later named the Jefferson School), Tonsler worked his way up to becoming the school's principal, a position he held for nearly 30 years.[2]

Charlottesville city directory for 1889 list the following under SCHOOLS: The City Public School for colored children is located on 4th St. n.w. B.E. Tonsler, Principal, with a corps of six teachers. The school has about six hundred children in attendance.

Tonsler's approach to education was influenced by his friendship with Booker T. Washington (b. 1856, d. 1915). Both Tonsler and Washington were students at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. This Institution eventually became simply Hampton Institute in 1930 and then Hampton University.


According the March 7, 1917 front-page tribute in the afternoon edition of The Daily Progress, because of “his earnestness and devotion to the upbuilding of his race, he has earned a high place in the estimation of the school authorities of the State.” He was described as “quiet and unassuming, but with a clear perception of the vast field for good which lay before those of his race who are ambitious to rise, he impressed himself on the rising generations under him in a way which won the admiration and esteem of all his white neighbors. It may be justly said without exaggeration that he measured up to the high standard which was set by Booker Washington and men of his stamp.”

Family life


Tonsler died in the afternoon of March 6, 1917 from pneumonia at his home, after an illness of less than a week. Funeral services were to be held in the First Baptist Church (West Main Street), pastor Rev. C. M. Long was to officiate. Internment was at Oakwood Cemetery[3].

Historical context

The Benjamin Tonsler House located at 327 Sixth Street, SW is one of Charlottesville's Individually Protected Properties[4]

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, pneumonia was the leading cause of death due to infectious disease and the third leading cause of death overall. The majority of deaths during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 were not caused by the influenza virus acting alone, report researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. Instead, most victims succumbed to bacterial pneumonia following influenza virus infection. [5]

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  3. "Charlottesville : Benjamin Tonsler." Charlottesville : Home. Web. 28 May 2010. <>.
  4. "Charlottesville : Architectural Design Control District and Individually Protected Property Information." Charlottesville : Home. Web. 16 Aug. 2010. <>
  5. Pneumonia Caused Most Deaths in 1918 Influenza Pandemic.