A child steps of a school bus toward a waiting woman.
Children living in Westhaven are still bussed miles across town rather than attending their neighborhood school, Venable, just a half mile away. Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

When Charlottesville schools were desegregated in 1966, Black kids in the city were finally given the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools. Or so they thought. 

Since it was built in the early 1960s, Black children who lived in the Westhaven public housing community on Hardy Drive have been zoned for schools far from their neighborhood — not the one closest to them. James Bryant was one of those students. 

In the late 1960s, instead of attending the nearby Venable Elementary School, Bryant and his Black classmates were sent to The McGuffey School. Bryant couldn’t help but feel singled out. He knew what was happening to him and the other Black children in his neighborhood was unfair.

“Everybody was designated to go to their neighborhood school with the exception of kids on Hardy Drive,” Bryant said to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “We couldn’t figure out why we had to go all the way to McGuffey School when Venable was right there.” 

Nearly 60 years later, as vice chair of Charlottesville City Schools, Bryant voted on Thursday night to finally stop sending Westhaven kids across town, and zone them instead to attend Venable Elementary. The school board voted unanimously, and with little fanfare, to rezone the neighborhood. 

“On behalf of Charlottesville City Schools, I would like to apologize to past and current families in the Westhaven Community for this historic and recent mistreatment,” Charlottesville schools said in a statement released in September

Hearing the apology came as a surprise to Bryant. 

“It made me feel good,” he said. 

A long-awaited change

After more than half a century of exclusion, children in Charlottesville’s Westhaven public housing community are finally zoned to attend their neighborhood school — Venable Elementary School. Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

The decision will impact 12 children that currently live in Westhaven and attend Burnley-Moran Elementary, some three miles away. Venable is half a mile away. 

Students who wish to remain at Burnley-Moran will have to fill out an out-of-zone application and provide their own transportation. 

The decision finalizes a half step the school board took in this direction in 2019. That year, the district gave families in Westhaven the option to switch their children to Venable, or keep them Burnley-Moran. Unlike the decision today, the neighborhood remained zoned for Burnley-Moran. 

The decision, said School Board Member Lisa Larson-Torres, was a priority for the board that year. The prior year, the New York Times published an article detailing the history of segregation and lack of opportunity given to Charlottesville’s Black children. The article did not mention Westhaven.

Larson-Torres said the New York Times article did raise a lot of questions within the board, but wasn’t the catalyst for the 2019 decision.

When the district offered Westhaven families the option to attend Venable “the majority” of them moved their children, said Amanda Korman, a spokesperson for City Schools. Korman did not know how many elementary school kids made the transfer.

“This act of rezoning or assigning residence to their neighborhood school is just one tiny step towards righting some of those wrongs,” said Larson-Torres. “In my opinion, we have a long way to go. Actions, actions, actions – that is what is necessary and needed. “

History of exclusion

The roots of Venable’s racist school zoning practices can be traced back to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. After the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision that declared segregation in schools unconstitutional, Virginia passed a series of laws, known mainly as Massive Resistance, to block any efforts to desegregate schools. Such laws included restricting funding to public schools that chose to integrate.

During this time, Venable Elementary School (then called The Venable School) was white only. Built in 1925, it was named after Col. Charles Scott Venable, a Confederate officer who worked with Gen. Robert E. Lee. The school taught children from affluent neighborhoods near the University of Virginia and was among the wealthiest in town.

Venable refused to integrate. Black families sued the district for access and, in 1958, a U.S. District Court ordered City Schools to allow 12 Black students, known as the Charlottesville 12, to attend white schools. Three were assigned to Lane High School and nine to Venable. The two schools still refused, and so Virginia’s governor closed them down.

The following year, amid intense pressure from the state and federal government, Venable reopened and accepted nine Black students.

Though technically integrating, City Schools was careful to keep most of Charlottesville’s Black children away from Venable. Black kids, especially those in 10th & Page and Westhaven, were subjected to a game of hot potato in regards to where they went to school. 

The children in Westhaven were shuffled so often that it is difficult to track where they attended. Anna Holden argued that some children who lived in the neighborhood possibly attended five different schools in their first sixth grades in her 1974 book “The bus stops here: A study of school desegregation in three cities.

At first, most continued going to The Jefferson School, an all Black elementary. City Schools completely desegregated in 1965 and closed The Jefferson School. But, instead of sending Westhaven and nearby 10th & Page kids to Venable, a few blocks away, they were zoned for McGuffey School in downtown. 

Bryant was one of those students who transferred.

Black students attended McGuffey for a year before the school shifted to serving students with disabilities. The next year, many Black students from the nearby neighborhoods did attend Venable. In 1967-1968, 41% of the school’s population was Black, according to the data collected from Charlottesville Public Schools and presented in Holden’s book.

That quickly changed, though. In 1968, the Charlottesville school board passed a new neighborhoods plan that rezoned the elementary schools, and the Black students in 10th & Page and Westhaven were sent to Burnley-Moran Elementary School. That’s how the zoning remained for the next four decades.

The movement to change this began in 2003. That year, Black residents in 10th & Page demanded that City Schools allow their children to attend Venable. The school board welcomed the request, said former board member Deirdre Smith. But Venable parents did not. 

The school board and Black residents were met with vitriol from the Venable Parent Teacher Organization in particular, she said. In a 2003 notice to the members of the PTO, the parents claimed that Venable could not handle an influx of 20 additional children, and the school would become further overcrowded. Venable, at the time, allowed roughly 50 students who were not zoned for the school to attend, said Smith, who was on the school board in 2003. 

The PTO also asserted that the children would be better off at Greenbrier Elementary School where they could receive all the “services” they needed. 

“When redistricting is done properly, carefully and fairly, taking into consideration the individual situations and needs of all the students and schools involved, Venable families will embrace any required changes,” said the notice. 

“We will NOT accept redistricting when it is done, as in this situation, sloppily and hurriedly and in a way which negatively impacts the quality of education for all students involved.”

Despite the response, the board voted to allow 10th & Page students to attend Venable in 2004. The rezoning did not include Westhaven.

Smith was appalled at what she witnessed. 

“It was shocking,” she said. 

Nearly 20 years later, Smith followed Thursday’s meeting with excitement.

“It’s a recognition we have a history of inequity that translates into academic success or lack thereof,” Smith said.

Editor’s note: Black children attended McGuffey Elementary School for one year, then the school transitioned to serving children with disabilities. The previous version of this article suggested that Black children in Charlottesville attended McGuffey until its closure in 1973. Also, it is unclear which Black children were bused to Greenbrier Elementary School. The previous article suggested that Black children in Westhaven were bused there.

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Tamica Jean-Charles

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's education and families reporter. Reach out to me by email or on Twitter. Also, subscribe to our newsletter! C’mon, it’s free.