Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Early Crozet Schools: From One-Room to Segregated Consolidation

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The Crozet High School Senior Class of 1921 was comprised of Dorothy Gentry, Edith Gentry, Virginia Maupin, Ellen Murray, James Quinn, Kathleen Rogers, Malcolm Sandridge, and Tom Wolfe. (Phil James Historical Images Collection)

You might say that the village of Crozet had the characteristics of a “school town” from the very get-go. After all, it was a schoolteacher by the name of Crozet who surveyed through the area in 1839 for a future rail line. With the establishment of Mr. Miller’s School near Batesville in 1874, it was only a matter of time before local farmers and merchants rolled out a welcome mat for that institution’s incoming educators and students.

Charlottesville’s Jeffersonian newspaper noted in its November 28, 1883, edition: “After the 1st of December the freight and post-office of the Miller School will be at Crozet instead of Meechum’s River as heretofore.”

Before government-sponsored public education was the norm, formal schooling was available to few besides those families who could afford to hire and house a private teacher. Ruth Wayland Nelson (1892–1983) wrote, “Crozet boasted of a little red schoolhouse somewhere in the neighborhood of the [John W.] Montague house [near Tabor and High Streets]. I am told that Mr. Etherton taught there.”

In this c.1955 aerial view, the original 1907 Crozet High School building on St. George Avenue is prominent beside Crozet Baptist Church. In the upper right is the “new” school that served high schoolers from 1924–1953 and elementary students until 1990. (Photo by Mac Sandridge)

In March 1906, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on the school situation at Crozet: “The present school conditions at Crozet may be said to be both discouraging and encouraging. The conditions of the school building and its surroundings are very poor. The house itself is a barn-like structure of three rooms, having no lines of beauty about it whatever, and having never been painted. The workmanship upon it was very poor, for all along the wall are cracks, through which the pupils can peep upon the outside world. The rooms on the inside are in nearly as bad condition as the outside of the building. At the beginning of the present school session the rooms were unadorned with pictures, there were no shades at the windows, the teachers had no desks nor chairs, and there was absolutely no appliances with which to work—that is, there were no maps, globes, geometrical figures, charts, etc.”

Remember, though, that the Richmond paper was reporting an adult’s perspective from 80-or-so miles away. Miss Ruth’s recollections included, “The school that I first remember was a one-room affair that stood where the [original Crozet High School was built], between the Baptist and Episcopal churches. Miss Mollie Wayland taught there and later Miss Sudie Wayland Day taught there. In about three years’ time, two rooms were added to this building and Mr. and Mrs. Sales took over with Miss Kate Wayland (Johnson) as primary teacher. Those were wonderful days… We had more fun and learned a great many things that were not in our text books… We always had something good to eat in school, and along about eleven o’clock many a choice morsel was exchanged.”

The original 1903 twin-spired Crozet Baptist Church, in the background facing south along St. George Avenue, stood alongside the brick two-story 1907 Crozet High School. Off-camera to the right/east was St. George’s Episcopal Church, constructed in 1901. (Photo courtesy of the Early-Shelton Collection)

Nevertheless, encouraged by state-level educators, Crozet villagers organized the “Citizens’ School Improvement League, of Crozet” in order to raise money for necessary classroom equipment. They also set and soon achieved the goal of building a high school. The new, two-story brick schoolhouse on St. George’s Avenue was sixty-feet square with four classrooms on the lower floor and an auditorium on the upper floor equipped with theater seating for 500 patrons.

Commenting on Crozet’s ongoing improvements, the Daily Progress noted in September 1911, “A new colored school and church will be erected soon.” Those wheels turned slowly, however: it was not until 1913 that Union Mission Church was organized. In 1915, church trustees Edgar Wesley and William Burress received clear title to the property where their sanctuary stood.

For African-American youth, formal education lagged a great distance behind the advances enjoyed by the white citizens. Among the champions for their cause in the Crozet area was Sugar Hollow native Edgar Lee Wesley (1861–1938). One of 11 siblings raised on a farm at the foot of the mountains, Wesley was eventually drawn to better opportunities eight miles away in the growing village along the railroad.

In 1899, Crozet’s first public school was relocated to St. George Avenue from its location near the C&O Depot. The one-room school was enlarged to three rooms within a few years. (Photo courtesy of the Ray P. “Pete” McCauley Collection)

While keeping his hand in farming, Wesley and his wife Maggie opened a small store beside their home, primarily serving the African-American community. In a room over that store, meetings were conducted by fraternal societies such as the Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias. Before Albemarle County established a public school for the African-American community in Crozet, the Wesleys provided classroom space in their home.

Finally, in 1916, the Crozet Elementary School for African Americans was established on a lot adjacent to Union Mission Church, across the railroad tracks from the Wesleys. “Edgar Wesley’s daughters Bertha, Emma, and Annie Belle were teachers down there at Crozet School,” said Frances Walker Hill. “That’s the only school we had to go to. Went to the seventh grade. Then went to Albemarle Training School and got the other four [high school] grades.”

By 1917, Crozet’s continued growth led to the high school’s former auditorium being partitioned for use as classrooms. Soon thereafter, arrangements were made with the Baptist Church next door to use their facility for additional classroom space during the week. 

The overcrowded school on St. George’s Avenue, accredited in 1919, graduated its final class in the spring of ’24. That fall, elementary and high school classes moved to the new, expanded location north of Crozet.

The Crozet Elementary School for African-American students, constructed 1916, stood west of Union Mission Baptist Church, south of the C&O tracks. In 1960, its students moved to the new, segregated Virginia L. Murray Elementary School on Morgantown Road near Ivy. The building was razed in 1984. (Phil James Historical Images Collection)

School administrators came to favor the advantages of centralized education, and, in 1949, patrons of Crozet High School voted for consolidation. Jackson P. Burley High School opened in 1951, replacing the outmoded Albemarle Training School, and consolidating all city and county African-American high school classes. Crozet High’s Class of ’53 was the last to graduate before white high school classes, with the exception of Scottsville, were consolidated at Albemarle HS.

As the latter decades of Jim Crow’s state-sponsored segregation crept ever so slowly toward an end, Crozet’s African-American elementary school students moved to Virginia L. Murray Elementary School at Ivy in 1960, consolidating there with former Rosenwald schools from Greenwood and Ivy. 

At the dedication of Crozet High School in 1907, Virginia’s ex-Governor A.J. Montague declared “that education was a right and not a privilege, and that the exercise of this right was the just demand of every citizen upon the government; and that the government, in conferring this right, fulfilled the highest aims of its creation.” Nearly 60 years later, that “aim” had yet to hit the bull’s eye, but it was getting closer. 

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2018 Phil James 

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