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New book documents Burley school’s history for posterity

From Jim Crow to desegregation and high school championships to middle school, the county middle school in the middle of the city has seen it all.

Now the history of Jackson P. Burley School is preserved in a glossy 267-page book, from which the author hopes students can learn for generations.

“Unforgettable Jackson P. Burley High School” is one of the most comprehensive records of Burley’s history written to date. Author Lucille Smith said she wanted to write the book to preserve the stories of students and faculty members as well as the school’s history.

“Black history matters,” Smith said. “The students are now senior citizens and many are no longer with us. Going forward, we can preserve, honor and never forget the past we document to secure the future because this is a brave and powerful story of African American students in the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.”

Burley School served as the high school for Black students in Albemarle County and Charlottesville from 1951 to 1967 when “separate but equal” was the land’s law. The city and county worked together to build and operate the school, which replaced Albemarle Training School, Esmont High School and Jefferson High School for Black students.

Through the Burley Varsity Club, which was formed in 2007, alumni have worked for years to commemorate the school’s history through memorials and to ensure its legacy is not forgotten.

Most recently, they worked with city officials to designate the building a state landmark and to add it to the National Register of Historic Places. The landmark marker for the school will be unveiled during a celebration in April.

“It is one of a very few segregated African American high schools that were not demolished, and it still functions as a school,” Smith said, adding that other schools from that era have been turned into community centers or office buildings.

Smith said that Burley was the first school that met students’ educational needs and provided cultural events as well as athletic opportunities.

“The first time that these students would receive an education through 12th grade was in 1951,” she said.

The school closed as a result of desegregation, and it opened as Burley Middle School for county students in 1974.

Charlottesville City Schools began integration in 1959 while Albemarle County started integrating its schools in 1963, a process fully completed by 1967. Student reflections in the book highlight difficulties experienced when they went to the formerly all-white Lane and Albemarle high schools after Burley closed.

“The fun times at [Burley] became a memory and no one wanted to talk about the elephant in the room,” Barbara Henderson Jacques said in the book. ”As the lives of the students were about to change, no one talked to us or explained what we could expect when we got to Albemarle High School.”

Jacques started at Albemarle High for her senior year but few teachers and administrators followed the Burley students to the formerly all-white schools.

Lillian Jackson, who left Burley as a junior, described the switch to Lane as traumatic.

“Nothing had changed to show us that all people, no matter what color, were created and treated equally,” she said in the book.

Jackson also described a time when Burley students began chanting their school cheers at a basketball game but were told to be quiet at halftime. At one point in the school year, 200 Black students walked out and returned with some demands to the administrators.

“But nothing changed,” she said. “The white students did not want the Black students at their high school, and we did not want to be there.”

Jimmy Hollins, president of the varsity club, said he bought one of the first copies of the book before it even came off the presses.

“I’m ecstatic about that book,” he said. “She did an outstanding job.”

The varsity club helped with the research process as much as they could. The book and the landmark status for the school will help to preserve the school’s history, he said, which has been the goal of the club.

“I feel that if we hadn’t started, it would just be gone,” he said of the school’s story. “Now people know about Burley.”

Smith, who did not attend Burley but is married to a graduate of the school, started working on the book at the beginning of the pandemic. Grants from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation and Piedmont Preservation supported her research. Worth Higgins & Associates printed the book.

Smith, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas who now lives in Greene County, worked with the U.S. Army for 36 years in information technology before retiring. For her next project, she’s researching the one and two-room schoolhouses that fed into the three all-Black high schools before Burley.

Since its release late last year, Smith said the book has been received well. The book has had two print runs and Smith expects a third.

Last month, Smith talked with the Albemarle County School Board about her book. The county school division has purchased copies of the book to put in each school library, officials said at the meeting.

“I do applaud them for wanting their students to read this history, particularly those students who are in middle school. They need to know about this,” she said.

Over the course of 12 chapters, Smith provides a detailed recounting of how Burley started, description of the school’s architecture, interviews with former students and teachers and plenty of photos.

“I wanted the book to be memorable,” she said.

The book also includes photos of the marching band uniforms for Burley students. She tracked down a graduate who still had one of the uniforms.

“I begged and pleaded, ‘please let me take the picture, so I can include it in the book,’” she said. “It brings back so many memories when you see these things.”

Another chapter focuses on the school’s namesake, Jackson P. Burley, and his family. Burley was a longtime teacher and his family owned and operated a store at the corner of Free Bridge Road and Meade Avenue for 17 years, according to the book. At age 19 he purchased the land on Rose Hill Drive that would later be seized for the school.

Burley died in 1945 at 80. Later, in 1947, his wife, Maggie Burley, refused to sell the land to the city, according to a letter she wrote to the city manager at the time. She was willing to sell other parcels but selling her home would be a “great sacrifice,” she wrote, according to the book.

Regardless, the city condemned her property in 1948 and paid Maggie Burley $14,000 for the land. Four other people sold land to the city for the school, according to the book.

The chapter also includes short biographies and photos of Burley’s family.

“To put a name with a face with the name was just so important,” Smith said. “I learned so much just reading and reading about the family and how successful they were. I think students should know that.”

The book is for sale at New Dominion Bookshop as well as through the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center and the Burley Varsity Club, Smith said. Copies also can be checked out through the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.

Smith said that with former Burley students getting older, there was a sense of urgency driving the project. She interviewed one student who is now 88 years old

“Now is the time. We can’t wait because oral recollection is so important,” she said.


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