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The first African-American students to desegregate Charlottesville City Schools have begun a new chapter in their fight for universal access to education.
At the Charlottesville School Board’s meeting last week, representatives of the Charlottesville 12 awarded a $5,000 scholarship to Kely Oufoula Kossi, who graduated from Charlottesville High School in early June.
Sandra Wicks Lewis organized and funded the new scholarship with help from other members of the Charlottesville 12. Lewis was one of nine students who integrated the previously all-white Venable Elementary School in 1959. The other three attended Lane High School.
“I think that the new civil right for today is a college education,” Lewis said. “I think that any student that has worked in high school to have a high GPA, to participate in leadership roles and community work, to get accepted to college — I think the new civil right is that child should be able to go to college.”
The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation will manage the endowment, which Lewis hopes will grow to support multiple students annually. This year, 10 students applied.
“We were absolutely astounded by these kids that applied. Of course, they had great accomplishments and high GPAs, but the thing that was really apparent to all of us is that a college education to these kids would be life-changing,” Lewis said.
Lewis said that each member of the selection committee independently concluded that Kossi was the standout applicant.
Kossi spent high school playing volleyball, dancing at the Music Resource Center and volunteering through her church. She planned multiple student walkouts to protest gun violence in the past year, and she acted in CHS’ production of “South Pacific.”
In addition to being a busy high-schooler, Kossi is a refugee. When Kossi was 6 months old, her family moved from the Republic of the Congo to Gabon. At 10, she moved to the U.S.
“At first, it was very scary, because I left a lot of my family members. Just me and my uncle moved here. A lot has changed since then,” Kossi said. “I’m piecing stuff together so I can afford college.”
Kossi heard about the scholarship from her AVID teacher, Brian Kayser. AVID — Advancement Via Independent Determination — is a national college readiness organization that collaborates with Charlottesville schools.
“[Kayser] said to put it on the top of our lists,” Kossi said. “I didn’t find out until the [senior] awards ceremony, and when they called my name, I was like, ‘You said what? Who, me?’”
Kossi plans to study criminology, psychology and French at George Mason University in the fall. After college, Kossi hopes to start a career in law enforcement.
“I was raised in the projects for a little bit of my lifetime. I saw that kids were afraid of cops,” Kossi said. “You see things happening on the news, and you kind of lose trust. Plus, I didn’t really see black officers. I want to be someone a black kid can look at and say, ‘I want to be that.’”
During Thursday’s School Board meeting, Superintendent Rosa Atkins apologized to the Charlottesville 12 on behalf of the school division.
“Today, we wish to express our grief and apology for the loss and discrimination you faced,” At-kins said. “We can never give you back those years, but we can walk with you from this point forward and celebrate and acknowledge what you not only did for students then, but what you’re doing for students now.”
Charles E. Alexander, who gives inspirational presentations as “Mr. Alex-Zan,” co-chaired the scholarship selection committee. Alexander is one of the youngest of the Charlottesville 12, and he said that he had an easier experience than the older students did.
One of Alexander’s white teachers helped divert racism from other students and their parents.
“I had a small altercation with two students who were brothers. They went home and told their mom and dad. Their dad came to the school after me, and Mrs. Miller blocked the door and didn’t al-low him in the classroom,” Alexander said. “She was to me an extended grandmother. She would dearly put little notes in my backpack to give to my mom, to give her an update on how my school experience was.”
To Alexander, the scholarship honors the parents of the Charlottesville 12, as well.
“Our parents were actually the heroes. There are only two parents surviving at this point — my mom and another student’s mom. The rest of the parents have passed on,” he said.
When Alexander’s mother, Elizabeth Taylor, decided to join the local NAACP’s desegregation efforts, she faced potential backlash from employers and other members of the community.
While waiting for the results of the litigation, Taylor was her son’s primary educator.
“One of her favorite quotes was, ‘It’s not the color of your skin. It’s not your dark skin that counts, but the goodness within,’” Alexander recounted.
The quote inspired Alexander to write a children’s book about his experiences titled “The Skin is Just the Cover: Mr. Alex-Zan’s Story.” Alexander ensured that each Charlottesville school library received a copy.
Kossi said she intends to give back to her communities in America and Africa.
“One day, I hope to start a school here and also back there,” Kossi said.