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Newly Discovered Papers Of Early Black Educator Present Rich Resource On Segregation-Era Rural Virginia

March 20, 2000 -- 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. Rosa Bell Simpson

The 1910 letter from a young student at Virginia Normal Institute (now Virginia State University) 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 at the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library Special Collections and eventually to 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, 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 collection, filling three large boxes, 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 community material and artifacts such as a church congregation photo, men’s lodge cards and ribbons, wedding announcements, a scrapbook of national African-American newspaper news, even a fire insurance policy for the Yancey home and a pair of silk stockings and reading glasses.

The Center for Digital History’s graduate students and undergraduates from U.Va.’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-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 across from today’s school 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. "It should help tell more about the society he lived and worked in."

S. Mack Tate, the current principal at Yancey School, said community oral history has been a main source of information about the educator for whom today’s school is named. The turn-of-the-century era of bad roads and horse and wagon transportation, and the worst inequalities of segregated schooling demanded dedicated efforts of both teachers and students, he said. Yancey headed the Men’s League which raised funds to buy the land on which a community school was built. His daughter May Yancey taught at the Esmont school in decades following her father’s death. When a new, still-segregated, school was built in 1960, the PTA wanted it to be named for the schoolmaster revered in community lore.

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."

"Race and Place: An African-American Community in the Jim Crow South," a collaboration between the Virginia Center for Digital History and Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, is a World Wide Web site that combines searchable databases of important primary sources with historical exhibits on African-American life in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Va., from about 1870 to 1930.

The web site invites users to explore an extensive collection of archival materials from the age of segregation, including hundreds of photographs, newspaper articles, letters, and other documents drawn from various collections at U.Va.'s Alderman Library.

"Race and Place: An African-American Community in the Jim Crow South" is on the World Wide Web at

For interviews or additional information about the Yancey papers contact:
William Thomas, director, Virginia Center for Digital History, (804) 924-7834
Michael Plunkett, director, Alderman Library Special Collections, (804) 924-3025
Mack Tate, principal, Yancey Elementary School, (804) 286-3768

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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