Before desegregation, the only Charlottesville high school open to African Americans was the Jefferson School. Built in 1926, the building is located on Fourth Street at the edge of the old Vinegar Hill neighborhood. The school opened several decades earlier, in 1894, as the nine-room, K-8 “Jefferson Colored Graded/Elementary School” (that building was demolished in 1959). An informal precursor to the school dates to the 1860s.
The first principal of the “Graded School” was Benjamin E. Tonsler (1854-1917).
He received his degree at Hampton University and went on to serve as the principal of the Jefferson School for thirty years. In this post we highlight material culture that remains today to commemorate this man’s life and works. First, his gravestone was “Erected by the Alumni of the Jefferson Graded School and Friends” in his memory.
His inscription reads “Gone But Not Forgotten.” This stone can be found within the Tonsler Family Plot in the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, located adjacent to the Oakwood Cemetery. Second, his house still stands on Sixth Street (behind the First Baptist Church on Main Street).
If we check the University of Virginia historic Holsinger Collection we locate a third memorial, a photograph of the funeral flowers brought to his house. And fourth, we remember his life in the name of the park located at the corner of Ridge and Cherry: Tonsler Park (the name was choosen in 1958).
One man’s biography writ large around us, if we only take the time to notice.
To read more about the history of the Jefferson School, please visit a website that contains a link to a 46-page downloadable history that was compiled as part of efforts to nominate the school as a historic landmark. Preservation Piedmont conducted dozens of oral interviews with former teachers and students. Information on that project is available on their website.