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A landmark moment: Burley alumni celebrate school's legacy with new plaque

Green and gold once again took over the lawn in front of Burley Middle School as dozens of Burley alums, current school staff, elected officials and community members gathered on a sunny Saturday morning to celebrate the legacy of Jackson P. Burley High School.

“Today, Jackson P. Burley High School takes its rightful place in the history of Albemarle County and Charlottesville, Virginia,” said Jimmy Hollins, who graduated in 1965 and is now president of the Burley Varsity Club, at Saturday’s ceremony.

The varsity club, which was created to preserve the school’s history, spearheaded the effort to designate the former Burley High School as a national and state landmark. During a ceremony Saturday, a plaque near the Rose Hill and Henry Avenue intersection was unveiled to commemorate that status and tell the school’s story.

Underneath a blooming redbud, the plaque stood covered in a trash bag and wrapped in duct tape, waiting to be unveiled. But before that could happen, a parade of speakers addressed the crowd and remarked on the significance of the marker.

“What makes a building is not the bricks, and it’s not the cement and it’s not the mortar; it’s the people,” Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook said. “It’s the people who work there, the people who taught there, the people who learned there, the people who played there.”

Snook attended Lane High School in the years right after Burley closed.

Speeches during the ceremony were punctuated by applause and the flamacue of the drum. Two alumni of the high school’s drumline provided the music and sound effects.

Graham Paige, the current chairman of the Albemarle County School Board, attended Burley from 1959 to 1964 and played alto sax in the school’s marching band.

He said the marker will call state and national attention “to the great history of Burley High School.”

“It’s a chance to gather in recognition for all that Burley High School offered us — its students and employees as well as this community,” he said. “It is a chance to reflect on how we have grown and to remember what we once were.”

In September 2020, Virginia Department of Historic Resources added Burley to the list of historic landmarks. Burley is one of 72 buildings, sites or objects in the Charlottesville area that are included on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Burley, which is currently an Albemarle County middle school, opened in 1951 as a high school for Black students in the area. The City of Charlottesville worked with the county to build the school before school segregation was ruled unconstitutional. The school closed in 1967 because of desegregation and reopened as a middle school in 1974.

The 16-year lifespan of Burley High School had a profound effect on the students who walked through the Burley hallways. One highlight often recounted by alumni is the 1956 football season. That year, during the height of Massive Resistance, the Burley Bears went undefeated, not allowing an opponent to score a single point.

The closing of the school and sending Burley students to Lane High was devastating to many Black students, many of whom were bused to Lane.

“This thing wasn’t our choice,” said Brenda Arkward, who attended the high school until it closed. “It was devastating.”

She said that white students did not want Black students to go to school with them and that Black students did not want to leave their beloved Burley. “We were not wanted, and we were pushed off,” she said. Once at Lane, she and other students couldn’t help but notice the nicer facilities at Lane.

“They had columns, and we had concrete blocks,” she said.

Even so, students would have given anything to remain at Burley, she said.

Recently, author Lucille Smith documented the school’s history in a new book. She was on hand Saturday to sign copies. She worked on the landmark application and said the event was “momentous.”

She and Hollins received standing ovations during the ceremony that preceded the unveiling.

The landmark status and Saturday’s event capped the varsity club’s years-long project to preserve the school’s history. Since forming in 2007, the group has installed a trophy case and a monument wall featuring the names of the school’s faculty and students. They’ve also named fields, classrooms and hallways after coaches and teachers — making the school a living memorial to the high school it used to be.

“You would not quit until you planted a national historical landmark here today to remember forever the time and deeds of the Burley High School community,” Albemarle schools Superintendent Matthew Haas said of the varsity club.

He and other speakers thanked the varsity club and other Burley graduates for their work in preserving the school’s history.

Hollins said he was overjoyed that the marker is up. He isn’t sure if the varsity club’s work is done.

“We don’t know what else we might do,” he said.

They are currently working with H3 Baseball and the University of Virginia Equity Center to build a walk of fame near the school’s original football field that has since become a baseball field.

‘Burley was our life’

To Claressia Witcher Bell and her older sisters, Jackson P. Burley High School will always be part of them and their lives.

“Burley was our life,” said Bell, who graduated in 1966. “Our entire neighborhood and everything we enjoyed was associated with Burley in some kind of way.”

To be part of the school’s legacy and to share it with her children and grandchildren is overwhelming, she said.

“Because as children, we were just enjoying life,” she said. “We didn’t realize what a legacy we were a part of until later on in life.”

Looking back, Bell said the schoblessing.

“It’s just a joy to know that history was made and that we’re now able to share that history,” she said.

As lifelong residents of the Rose Hill neighborhood, the Witcher sisters said they watched Burley go up, brick by brick. All three sisters attended the school, and on Saturday, wore matching gold sweaters from the school’s 2006 reunion.

Janice Witcher Martin, who graduated in 1961, said Saturday’s ceremony was fun and that she appreciated the varsity club’s efforts.

“Most of our things that we had owned in this area were taken away from us,” said Ellie Witcher Shackelford, who graduated in 1957. “This is about the only place that was left only because it was useful to others after [it closed.]”

Shackleford, who is now 81, didn’t think much of the school’s history when she attended it as a teenager.

“It’s just good to be here after all these years,” she said.

‘A blessing’

Among the crowd was June Banks, who was part of the last class to attend the school before it closed in 1967. Banks said Saturday’s ceremony and the landmark status means everything to her.

“Anything they do to keep it going is a blessing,” she said. “It means everything that the plaque is up there.”

Banks brought the yearbook from 1967 with her to the event. She remembers her time at Burley fondly, though she said she was a bit mischievous.

“I love my school,” she said, pointing out the window where her homeroom classroom used to be.

She played the trumpet in the school’s marching band and still has the uniform she wore, which was featured in Smith’s book.

On Saturday, she donned a hat and sweater from Burley’s 2002 reunion. She said alumni have tried to meet up every four years, and the next one is supposed to take place this year.

“Anytime we get together, it’s a reunion,” she said.

She wants current students to know that the high school alumni fought for the school, which had up to 1,200 students at one time, she said. Today, about 600 students attend middle school.

“I hope they are as proud of this school as we are,” she said.

Burley principal Kasaundra Blount said the landmark is a charge for the current Burley community to pick up the torch and add to the school’s “great legacy.”

The physical marker will help make the status more meaningful and will anchor conversations about the school’s history.

“Now that we have this, I can’t wait for us to build lessons and activities around what being a National Historic Landmark means for our students, but more importantly, why we are a historic landmark and to keep that connection going,” she said.


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