A long-planned history exhibit in the lobby of the Yancey School Community Center is nearly fully installed.
The B.F. Yancey Heritage and History Exhibit outlines the history of African American education in the Esmont community, and tells the story of how the former school came into existence.
In 2017, against the wishes of many in the community, the Albemarle County School Board voted to consolidate Yancey Elementary School into Red Hill and Scottsville elementary schools. The Board of Supervisors in 2018 supported turning the building into a community center.
The history project was coordinated by Peggy Scott and Charlotte Brody, after Brody brought the idea to a meeting of the Yancey community transition group. One of her sons attended a school in Charlotte that had been the first integrated high school in that city.
“To commemorate the integration of the Charlotte, North Carolina, public school system, there was this exhibit in the entranceway to that school which was now being used as an elementary school,” Brody said. “It was a really good exhibit, and it was powerful to walk through.”
Scott, who attended Yancey for some of her schooling, said there was grief in the community after the school was closed, as many felt the loss of a hub of the community.
“This exhibit sounded like the perfect thing to do — create something that would help the community with their healing phase, but also help the community tell the stories of how they saw the school, what the school meant to them,” Scott said.
Scott said she felt that the School Board “just completely wiped aside” many of the community efforts around the school and the years of education in Esmont.
“So having the exhibit was something we knew would be helpful. It wouldn’t fix the problem of oppression and racism, but at least it would give the opportunity to talk about how there were people in the days before us that wanted to see these children educated,” she said.
The exhibit, which is made up of panels and reader rails that line the walls of the lobby, starts with the Reconstruction Era, when the first school to serve African American students from Esmont was established, even though it was in nearby Keene, and ends with the closure of Yancey Elementary as a school.
Benjamin Franklin Yancey, the building’s namesake, worked to establish a high school for Black students. He taught at Esmont Colored School and also worked in hotels away from his family during the summer.
“When I think of people like him, it was just normal to struggle like that,” Scott said. “And nowadays, I probably wouldn’t consider it, because I deserve to be able to work within my community, to be able to raise my family and take care of my other needs. But those people, I still say, they amaze me, that even though it was normal, to leave your family every summer trying to build a school for children that weren’t yours … it’s just amazing to have that as a legacy for making the world a better place.”
Historian Hannah Scruggs curated the exhibit. She started with the oral histories that had been collected during a heritage and history day at the school, as well as those in collections at the University of Virginia and the Scottsville Museum, Brody said.
They also went through items at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, including six boxes of artifacts from the school, obtained more research from the Scottsville Museum and utilized newspaper articles, yearbooks and additional information from families from the area.
“We’re going to use that information and put it on a website to mesh with what’s in here,” Scott said.
Scott said a planned kiosk with some of the additional information was scrapped due to the pandemic, as it would have to be touched to scroll.
Ed Brooks, the center’s program coordinator and a former Yancey student, said the exhibit and its quality gives Albemarle schools a chance to bring students to the building to learn about the school and African American education.
“Reading the boards is where you begin to connect the dots, and it’s like, ‘Wow, we actually have that in this facility,’” he said. “It’s the opening room — it’s not in the back, it’s not inside. I just want to commend Charlotte and Peggy for having a vision to do something like this.”
The project received a Heal Charlottesville grant, as well as grants from Virginia Humanities and Preservation Piedmont through Virginia Organizing. Albemarle-based Gropen Inc. made and installed the panels, and Brooks said the county government has been very supportive of the projects.
At this point, the exhibit it not open to the public due to the pandemic, but Brooks said they hope to be able to welcome people in later this year.