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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.”

Virginia map highlighting Arlington County.
Segregated School Districts, Jefferson Township School Census Map, 1870.

Alexandria County Superintendent of Schools Records, 1851-1920, Alexandria/Arlington County Court Records, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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

Catherine OBrion

Former Local Records Archivist


  • This is a fascinating map of schools in Jefferson Township. Can you provide the full citation? Also, what is the citation and location of the photo of school children? Is this local to Arlington, Alexandria? We are currently working on the african american community called “The Fort” in what is now Fort Ward Park on Braddock Rd. Historical research by several people provide information about the school established on the property.

    • Dale says:

      Hi Pamela,
      The full citation for the record is Jefferson Township School Census Map, 1870, Alexandria County (Va.) Superintendent of Schools Records, 1851-1920 (bulk 1870-1884). Local government records collection, Alexandria/Arlington County (Va.) Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va. 23219.
      The photograph of the African American students ca. 1895 is of an unknown location. We used it as an illustrative example.
      There are two groups of records that might be helpful to you in researching the late-nineteenth-century history of communities in present-day Arlington (formerly Alexandria County): The Alexandria County (Va.) Superintendent of Schools Records, 1851-1920 (bulk 1870-1884), and the Jefferson Township Board of Public Free Schools Minutes, 1881-1880. The Supertintendent of Schools records contain annual reports, correspondence, oaths of office, and personnel records documenting the administration of the public school system in Alexandria County in these years. The Jefferson Township Board of Public Free Schools Minutes, 1881-1880, include some information on school buildings in Jefferson Township. These records consist of monthly minutes recording spending by the Board, teachers hired for white and African American schools (including names of teachers and salaries), votes, and elections of board members. Minutes also include references to money spent on school buildings, grounds, and fuel (kindling wood and coal) and annual summaries of accounts.
      For more information on these records, consult the finding aids to the records:
      We hope this helps. Good luck in your research.

  • Dave Cavanaugh says:

    Would the library have a collection for Fairfax County schools-1870-1951 (or partial) including school board minutes, pay slips, exam and placement records for teachers, and attendance records? The primary interest is colored schools in FFX County. Thanks

    • Dale says:

      Hi Dave,
      The Fairfax County school records are maintained in the Fairfax County public school archives in Fairfax. For more information, contact Nancy Tyler, Records Management Specialist, at or 703-329-7746.
      The Virginia Public Records Act gives the county clerk the authority to maintain records of historical importance that remain in the locality or transfer them to the state archives at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. For more information on researching local school records, contact Archives Reference Services at or by phone 804-692-3888.
      Good luck with your research!

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