Near the end of the school day Thursday, first-graders in Leslie Hunter’s class at Venable Elementary gathered on the classroom carpet to look at a pair of photographs.
One was a Venable class photo of all white children from the 1940s. The other image showed a handful of black students and their parents walking up the Venable steps to integrate the school in September 1959.
“A trailblazer is someone who carves a pathway so it’s easier for everyone else to follow,” Hunter told her students. “These kids came to Venable and carved a pathway for all students, no matter the color of their skin, to come to Venable.”
Classes throughout Charlottesville on Thursday focused on integration of the city school system as well as the students and parents who made it possible during the first Trailblazer Day. Division officials have said the day will be an annual event.
“It’s to recognize and honor the first group of black students who came to Charlottesville City Schools,” Hunter told her students.
Twelve black children integrated Venable and Lane High School in 1959. Three years later, four black children walked into Johnson Elementary, integrating that school and marking the start of a new era for the school division.
Other teachers had students make clay action figures and reflect on the fairness of schools in the past, according to social media posts.
Hunter said after class that it helps to have a date or time set aside to teach this history. Her lesson focused on the photographs; she used them to explain to students that there was a time when only white children could attend the school.
Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins pledged last month to reserve a day each school year for teachers to focus on the integration. She made the announcement Oct. 23 during a ceremony that honored the students and parents who integrated Johnson Elementary School in 1962, and additional details were announced at the School Board meeting earlier this month.
Eugene Williams, who was the president of the Charlottesville NAACP branch at the time of integration, was honored at that October ceremony; his daughters were part of the Johnson group. He said at the time that the school system should teach the history of integration, and Atkins agreed.
Through a division-wide initiative, Changing the Narrative, teachers are learning how to include more diverse and local voices in social studies classes, how to be honest about history and how to include age-specific discussions.
“Today was a start,” Hunter said.
To kick off her lesson, Hunter asked students what they noticed about the two photos, which also are displayed on a wall near the school’s main entrance. Students picked up on a metal lunchbox, the students’ attire and short haircuts.
“They are in black and white, so it must be a long time ago,” one student said.
Another student picked up on the racial differences.
“I noticed all the white people and then I saw a black person,” the student said.
Hunter said in an interview after class that she was glad students pointed out that one photograph had only white children.
Students wanted to know what the school was like back then and if Hunter taught at Venable in the 1950s.
“I could not have taught here,” she said. “As an African American, I couldn’t have been able to teach at Venable back then.”
She asked the students how many knew Alex-Zan, who has visited the school before. The local activist and educator Charles Alexander, known to local kids as Alex-Zan, was one of the nine students to integrate Venable. Today, he speaks to elementary students and promotes conversation and understanding through the annual Close Your Mouth and Listen Day.
Hunter said she wanted to highlight individuals who are still in the Charlottesville community who blazed the trail for current students.
She asked students to imagine how they would feel if they were the students in walking up the Venable steps for the first time.
Students said that they would be nervous and a little excited.
So they could hear how one member of the Charlottesville Twelve felt, Hunter played students a video of Sandra Wicks Lewis reflecting on her first day at Venable. Lewis said she was nervous but grateful for the girl who asked to sit with her at lunch.
That prompted a class conversation about how they could welcome students in Lewis’ position.
“It doesn’t matter how different they are from you, you are still in school together,” Hunter said.
Students said they would be her friend, invite her a playdate and play with her at recess on the swings.
“I would be nice to her and have a playdate with her and she could play with all my toys,” a student said.
Hunter pointed out that trailblazers in the city schools didn’t know what to expect and were nervous.
“But they had the courage to go ahead and try,” she said. “They experienced it and led the way for others.”