Decades after Jackson P. Burley High School shut its doors, the school’s alumni continue to tell their stories to keep the memory of the once all-Black high school alive, and they want to work with students at the school, which became Jackson P. Burley Middle School in 1974, in that effort.
“I wish the history of this school would be taught to students in a class, so the kids would understand what we went through, what our parents went through and show them the difference between what it is then and what it is now,” said Donald Byers, who graduated in 1959. “They have great opportunities now — opportunities we didn’t have — and they need to make sure that they take advantage of those opportunities.”
Byers and two Burley High School graduates returned to the Rose Hill campus last month to discuss its legacy with a current student while seated in a hallway dedicated to the high school’s 16-year history. Through the Burley Varsity Club, alumni have worked for years to commemorate that history through memorials and other efforts. Most recently, they worked with city officials to designate the building as a state landmark and to add it to the national register of historic places.
The student, Michael Zaney, started the conversation knowing the highlights about Burley’s history, courtesy of Google: that it was an all-Black high school that opened in the 1950s. After talking with the men about their experiences, he agreed that the school’s history should be taught to current students.
“I feel like kids would be eager to learn the history of Burley more and that they would take school more seriously,” said Zaney, an eighth-grader at Burley. “Burley is a great, great school. I love it. But some kids, I don’t feel, truly know the pain of some of these older folks.”
Zaney said that he thought if students could humble themselves and learn the history, that would play in their favor.
“It would push those people who don’t want to learn to learn and get better, because as [Byers] said, we have the opportunity; we just need to get a hold of it,” he said. “I would definitely recommend the class to some of my friends.”
In late November, Jackson P. Burley High School was added to the National Register of Historic Places following a push by alumni. That listing followed a milestone in September when the site was added to Virginia Landmarks Register.
“Going to a landmark school makes me feel special,” Michael said, who didn’t know that tidbit prior to the conversation. “It lets me know that people sacrificed to get where we are now.”
Burley served as the high school for Black students in Albemarle County and Charlottesville from 1951 to 1967 when “separate but equal” was the law of the land.
Initially, the school boards in Charlottesville and Albemarle County jointly managed the facility. Three years after it opened, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional.
Charlottesville City Schools integrated in 1959 after a court battle that led Gov. J. Lindsay Almond to close two schools for five months. Meanwhile, Albemarle County started integrating its schools in 1963, a process completed in 1967, which led to the closure of the school.
“I never expected it to close,” said Jimmy Hollins, who graduated in 1965 and is now president of the Burley Varsity Club. “But it did. That was a shock.”
The alumni formed the Varsity Club in 2007 as a way to make sure the school’s history and legacy isn’t forgotten. Over the years, they’ve installed a memorial and trophy case and are currently working to refurbish the school’s old football field, which was the site of many athletic triumphs for the Burley Bears. That’s in addition to working with city and school officials on the landmark application.
“There’s always something to be done,” Hollins said.
Byers said one of the best decisions the group made was picking Hollins as president, adding that he keeps them busy.
In 2013, they worked with school officials to award a diploma to Olivia Ferguson McQueen — 54 years after she graduated. She was the principal plaintiff in the lawsuit that first integrated the city schools, and officials denied her a proper graduation ceremony and diploma.
During the conversation last month, Hollins sent Zaney down the hallway to read a plaque about her story.
“It was sad,” Zaney said upon returning. “For me, personally, I would’ve felt like I had been robbed of 60 years of my life.”
William Redd, who graduated in 1958, never wanted to come to Burley. He said he was ready to quit school rather than transfer. But within two months, he was taking the school bus to Scottsville to hang out with friends. He also found best friends through football and basketball.
Byers was used to one-room schools in Albemarle County and knowing everybody before he started at Burley. That wasn’t the case at Burley, which brought in students from all over Albemarle, Charlottesville, and some surrounding counties.
“I consider myself a people person,” said Byers, who graduated in 1959. “I always like to be around and to talk to people, so that was great for me.”
He said the Burley teachers were the best he ever had. If you wanted an education, they were there for you, he said.
“Wherever success I have achieved in life, I contribute to this school,” he said. “I did not proceed to college for other reasons. I was able to receive enough to be healthy, to make a decent living and be a decent person, and to do some things in life.”
He went on to become the first Black store manager in the area of a large grocery chain. He later went into law enforcement and became a detective.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about the school and passionate about people learning the history of the school,” he said. “I never was able to attend integrated school because I left in ‘59, so all of my education was in segregated schools. I’m not disappointed that I did, because I feel like I made the best of the situation that I was in. And so to me, Jackson P. Burley will always be something that I cherish and something that I’ll always be fighting for.”
Hollins said he had to attend Burley, rather than trying to get into Lane High School.
“My mother wasn’t going to let me go to Lane because she said she would end up in penitentiary, and I wanted to come to Burley,” he said. “I think every young kid in my town wanted to come to Burley. It was the place to come.”
Hollins said that he was an OK student but the teachers were great.
“If I knew what I know now, I would’ve had textbooks in each hand, reading,” he said.
He later got a job on the railroad and made a good living, he said.
“But kids today they can do so much better than what we did,” Hollins said.
For Zaney, his favorite parts of the pre-pandemic school day were lunch and the 10-minute break in between classes. He also really likes his teachers. Physical education is one of his favorite classes.
The conversation with the alumni only increased his appreciation for the school, he said.
“It makes me like it a lot more because now Burley’s more diverse and like you can change anything,” he said. “It doesn’t matter about your skin color. Just to know that it came from this segregated school to this beautiful school where everybody welcomes you with warm arms makes me happy.”