Telling tales: Sharing Jefferson School memories

When the Jefferson School closed its doors last September, a concerned community wondered how best to ensure preservation of the venerable old building. Public outcry had already forced the city to abandon plans to sell the 1926 structure to developers, but the future of a historic cornerstone of Charlottesville’s black community hung in the balance. Moreover, there was the legacy of the school to consider.
That’s when a few Jefferson advocates considered the Jefferson School reunion. Well attended year after year, the annual Labor Day gathering presented a unique opportunity to raise awareness about the school and document its history at the same time.
“We thought it was a good idea to get together with some of these alumni and tape their stories,” recalls Jackie Taylor, a member of both Preservation Piedmont and the Jefferson School Task Force. With a $5,500 grant from The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the Jefferson School Oral History Project was born.
On Friday, February 15, Preservation Piedmont will examine that task against the larger backdrop of oral history, local knowledge, and community preservation.
“The preservation movement is much more than just saving buildings from the wrecking ball, it’s also about constructing a more rounded view of ordinary everyday life,” says conference organizer Liz Sargent.
Taylor says the conference, which features other oral history case studies such as Monticello’s “Getting Word” project for Jefferson’s slaves, will showcase the audio and videotaped interviews that have been done with Jefferson graduates from the 1940s. She says she also hopes it will inspire similar regional initiatives, which might “reveal the rich heritage that in turn can bolster a community’s strength.”
Speakers at the day-long conference include representatives from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, and UVA. Topics include “Constructions of gender, race and nation,” as well as “The uses of Oral History in public history with emphasis on National Register applications.”
Assuredly, this is a day for staid and scholarly reflections on the Jefferson School. It’s February, not August, and this is the UVA Architecture School, not Starr Hill. Still, refreshments will be served, and former Jefferson School students will be coming in by chartered bus—so there may be some tale-telling after all.

The Oral History and Community Preservation conference will take place on Saturday February 15, at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Room 158 from 9:30am to 2:30pm. The conference is free and open to the public.
The Jefferson School Oral History Project will also hold a multi-media presentation during the Virginia Festival of the Book on Saturday, March 22.

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