More than 60 years after the commonwealth of Virginia chose to shut down schools rather than let him and his schoolmates study with White children, Charles “Alex-Zan” Alexander stood before a crowd of students at the Greenbrier Elementary School garden.
One of the 12 Black students who first integrated all-White public school in 1959, on Friday Alexander helped commemorate the 64th anniversary of the Charlottesville 12 by telling the crowd of young students before him the importance of perseverance.
“Don’t give up and keep knocking on the door,” the 71-year-old Alexander preached on the hot morning.
To his right sat a sundial designed by former interns of Cultivate Charlottesville, an organization working to build a just food system in the city. Soon a similar sundial commemorating the Charlottesville 12 will be placed in the garden of every public elementary school in the district. The one at Greenbrier was installed last month.
“It’s just a reminder to keep a historical perspective, particularly for the young students that may not be aware of the historical importance of the Charlottesville 12,” Alexander said.
Sitting in a wheelchair behind the audience was Elizabeth Taylor, Alexander’s mother and the last living parent of one of the Charlottesville 12. She recently celebrated her 90th birthday.
“A lot of people called me a hero,” Alexander told the students, reminding them that he was just 7 years old when he and his schoolmates integrated the city’s schools. “I’m not a hero. The hero is my beautiful mother.”
Sipping on a cup of water as the sun beamed down, Taylor laughed at the characterization of herself as a hero.
“I just did what I had to do to help the schools and help the children,” she told The Daily Progress. “I’m glad to see the schools have integrated and everything is moving along.”
Leah Leon was among the interns who helped design the sundial four years ago. It was around that time that she and her peers first learned of the Charlottesville 12.
“We thought, that’s a piece of history, a local issue that we need to save and preserve. And we thought about how can we honor the students who were brave enough to integrate,” Leon told The Daily Progress.
They settled on the idea of a sundial with the name of each of the 12 students engraved on it. It would honor their memory and also serve as a metaphor.
“In the sense that with the passage of time, there will always be positive change,” Leon said.
A high-energy Alexander introduced himself to the students, telling them he was there in part to teach them about the Charlottesville 12.
“But more importantly, I want you to think in terms of how you can become a history-making trailblazer,” he said.
Alexander said he wanted to pass down lessons he said he learned from his mother and grandmother: the importance of individuality, saying hello, keeping good friends. He used toys as learning aids, including a Frisbee on a string meant to symbolize reciprocity. One young girl in the crowd offered to try it out, throwing the Frisbee with Alexander’s assistance and watching it come directly back to her.
“If you put out goodness, goodness comes back,” he said.
The children peppered him with questions when he opened the floor.
“Did you invent the toys?”
“How old are you?”
“Do you have a pet?”
He answered each one, later telling The Daily Progress he attends these events to give children the tools to become history-makers.
“Because it’s not all about me. But how can they become great?” he said.