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Papers of early black educator discovered

Collection sheds light on segregation-era rural Virginia

By Robert Brickhouse

Dear Mr. Yancey, ...Do you have many scholars this year?... I thank you for all the instruction you have given me. I will never forget you and your family.
čRosa Bell Simpson

The 1910 letter from a young student at Virginia Normal Institute (now Virginia State College) in Petersburg, back to her rural schoolmaster, is among hundreds of rare documents offering an extensive picture of early African-American education in Virginia. They were recently discovered in the attic of a boarded-up house about to be torn down in Albemarle County.

Now being arranged and described by Alderman Library Special Collections staff, the trove of documents and artifacts are the family papers of Benjamin Franklin Yancey, one of the first black educators in central Virginia and for whom the current elementary school in Esmont is named. Yancey, who died in 1915, came to rural southern Albemarle County in the 1890s to found, raise money for, and teach at a one-room school for African-American children.

The papers will eventually be placed for research on the World Wide Web through U.Va.'s "Race and Place" project on the history of the Jim Crow era. Filling three large boxes, the collection includes more than 250 letters, photographs and tintypes, and school documents shedding light on rural education and community life in Virginia.

"It's extremely valuable and rare to have a collection of such size for an African-American family in the South in this period," said William G. Thomas, a historian and director of the Virginia Center for Digital History, which will place the documents and photos on the web. "They are a rich source about early education."

Included in the materials are rare issues of the "Children's Edition" of the NAACP's magazine The Crisis, founded and edited by W.E.B. DuBois; pupils' rolls and attendance records with names and ages, official state school correspondence and teachers' ledgers, report cards, extensive family letters and cards, diaries and letters to African-American colleges in Virginia. There are also artifacts such a scrapbook of national African-American newspaper clippings, a fire insurance policy for the Yancey home, a pair of silk stockings and reading glasses.

Graduate students affiliated with the Center for Digital History and undergraduates from U.Va.'s Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies will further evaluate and describe the documents this summer and eventually help place them on the "Race and Place≤ web project, where they will be linked to other central Virginia historic material available on the Internet to anyone researching African-American segregation-era history.

The papers were found last fall in the old Yancey house, which had been abandoned since the mid-1950s and was being torn down. The papers were brought to school officials, who contacted U.Va. archivists. "There are not many such substantial African-American family collections from that time," said Michael F. Plunkett, director of Special Collections.

S. Mack Tate, the current principal at Yancey School, said the worst inequalities of segregated schooling, along with bad roads and horse and wagon transportation, demanded dedicated efforts of both teachers and students.

Found in the boxes of documents, Yancey's contract stipulated that he start a fire in the stove each morning and make sure the floors were swept, for a salary of $25 a month. "He did it all," Tate said. "We're hoping that the papers will tell us more about his life and will help make new connections."

When a new, still-segregated, school was built in 1960 across from the house, the PTA wanted it to be named for the schoolmaster revered in community lore.


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