Schools, public schools in particular, often play a central role in communities. Many families consider the quality and reputation of schools a major factor in choosing where to live (if they have the means and mobility to make such a choice). Public schools also hold lasting memories and significant historic meaning. This is especially true for communities such as the one that rallied to preserve and reinvent the Jefferson School in Charlottesville, Virginia. The school, which has a much longer history than the extant building, embodies the struggles and accomplishments of Charlottesville’s African American community since the late nineteenth-century. Andrea Douglas, Executive Director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, in an interview with Andrea Copeland of Inside Nonprofits, says that the Jefferson School is “the only school in the city in which you can trace the change of the community in its physical structure.” The changes traced in the Jefferson school’s history include the introduction of educational opportunity for former slaves, school segregation, and the now-infamous destruction of the historic Vinegar Hill neighborhood, the western edge of which abuts the Jefferson School, as part of Charlottesville’s urban renewal program in the 1960s and 1970s.
Rudolph Goffney, alumnus of the Jefferson School and participant in the Jefferson School Oral History Project, describes the importance of preserving the school as a way of honoring an often painful history: “You’re going to need reminders of those things when you don’t have the people around to tell others what happened…if people don’t learn what happened, they’ll never know why or how, or how to prevent it from happening again“ (as quoted in Community Engagement at the Jefferson School). Jefferson School alumni were instrumental in revising the city’s plans to redevelop the school to ensure that the building and its tenants will honor and preserve local African American history and reestablish the cultural heart of the community.
The new Jefferson School City Center, which celebrated its grand opening on January 19, 2013, is now home to a renovated Carver Recreation Center and the new Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, along with the Jefferson Area Board for Aging’s intergenerational programming, Piedmont Virginia Community College’s new culinary program, and several other non-profits and social service organizations. While not the first school building to be adapted for new use in Charlottesville (the McGuffey Arts Center and the Albemarle County Office Building both occupy historic city schools), the Jefferson School City Center represents a unique and collaborative model that will commemorate the African American community’s history while providing a place for citizens to gather and engage in new cultural production.
Other cities around the country have adapted historic school buildings for community use: a former high school in Redmond, Washington is now the Old Redmond Schoolhouse Community Center, which according to the Project for Public Spaces “has provided the catalyst for revitalization of a diverse and economically challenged neighborhood and a focal point for renewed and expanded community development.” Indianapolis, Indiana’s new Martindale Brightwood Community Center, expected to be completed this year, will include renovation of former Hazel Hart Hendricks School 37 to a state-of-the-art community center preserving the original gymnasium and adding a community kitchen, town square area, and other amenities. Cities are also finding creative ways to keep operating schools at the center of communities, re-using other building types such as a movie theater-turned-charter-school in Brooklyn, New York and a former church slated to house the middle school campus of San Francisco’s Children’s Day School.
Keep an eye on what happens at the Jefferson School City Center; the Center’s story embodies the centrality of schools in defining the history and shaping the future of our communities.
Guest Contributor: Julia Triman