Before the Civil War, Virginia did not have a comprehensive public school system. Lawmakers passed various measures to fund public schools, but these measures were directed primarily toward schools for a small segment of the population, the children of indigent white families.
These schools were known as “free schools” or “charity schools,” and only the very poor attended. African Americans, free and enslaved, were excluded from these schools because it was illegal to teach them. With the end of the Civil War and ratification of a new state constitution in 1869, lawmakers established in 1870 Virginia’s first public school system for all children, in order to “prevent children growing up in ignorance, or becoming vagrants.”
As local officials complied with the new state law, they set about drawing school districts segregated by race. This could be a challenge, however. While cataloging Alexandria/Arlington County school records recently, I came upon this hand-drawn map of Jefferson Township (in what was then Alexandria County, part of present-day urban Arlington), which shows white and African American families living closely together. To create two districts segregated by race, the map-maker drew what looks like a badly gerrymandered voting district. The map was attached to an 1870 census of school-aged children in Jefferson Township. Each dwelling is designated W (“white”) or C (“colored”).
Jefferson Township was located near what is now Crystal City and the 14th Street Bridge connecting Virginia and the District of Columbia. The Jefferson Township Board of Public Free Schools Minutes, 1871-1880, provide information about early public schools in present-day Arlington. For each school, African American and white, the records list the names of teachers and their salaries. Minutes also include references to money spent on school buildings, grounds, and fuel (kindling wood and coal).
These records are representative of school records from localities across the state documenting the early history of Virginia’s public school system. The Library also has nineteenth-century school censuses showing high rates of illiteracy and records of charity and free schools from the antebellum years. Records from the twentieth century document the desegregation of public schools and massive resistance to court-ordered school desegregation in the mid-twentieth century.
The Jefferson Township School Census and Map, 1870, is part of the Alexandria County (Va.) Superintendent of Schools Records, 1851-1920 (bulk 1870-1884), Local Government Records Collection, Alexandria County/Arlington (Va.) Court Records. The Jefferson Township Board of Public Free Schools Minutes, 1871-1880, are also part of the Alexandria County/Arlington (Va.) Court Records. The collection is open for research. Other school records from various localities are being added to the Library of Virginia’s online catalog as they are processed.
-Catherine OBrion, Local Records Archivist