The first thing most people think about when they think of Brown vs. the Board of Education is the Little Rock Nine — the group of nine African American students who were famously the first group to attend an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
As someone who grew up only a few miles away from Little Rock Central High School, Lucille Smith knows plenty about that part of Civil Rights history. And another part of that history she’s become an expert in started right here in Albemarle County.
Plenty of people in our community know of Burley Middle School, the large, gray building that sits at the top of the hill on Rose Hill Drive. Most probably know either a student or a teacher who walks the halls of the school every day. But what some might not know is that before Burley was a middle school for Albemarle County Public School students, it was the county’s last all-Black high school.
Lucille is such an expert in this local history, in fact, that she wrote a book about the school, titled Unforgettable Jackson P. Burley High School, that details the history of the school as an all black high school and is chock full of photos of several graduating classes and sports teams.
Now she’s focusing her lens on something a little farther back: the 38 one- and two-room schoolhouses throughout the county that led into the three high schools before they were combined into Burley High School in 1951.
“It started with the stories I would tell my children about the school their father went to,” Lucille said.
Her husband, Rauzelle J. Smith, attended what was known as the North Garden Colored School, a small schoolhouse in North Garden that served students that lived in the neighborhood in which the school was located.
Her husband’s story, which takes him from that small schoolhouse to the Chairman of the Charlottesville City School Board, inspired her to tell the story of the other schools in the county. A few of the other segregated schools in the county had published books, she said, but the most she could find about the small schoolhouses were some reunion pamphlets and oral histories.
“I kept waiting for someone who actually went to the schools to do it, but no one ever did,” she said, “So I decided to.”
So far, Lucille has talked to several students who attended these schools as far back as 1957 and has been able to find photos of 32 of the 38 schools, some of which are more than 100 years old. And with these photos, she’s put together a presentation on this local history to share with students during Black History Month.
She said it’s important for students today to remember this history, especially the local aspect.
“We’re seeing some of these struggles beginning again in schools around the country,” she said. “I want to show them the people whose backs this history was built on.”
Photo caption: The Greenwood School was one of several Rosenwald Schools built in Albemarle County.