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Thomas Jefferson History Overview

Thomas Jefferson High School opening day was September 11, 1930, which was a little more than a year after its corner stone was laid. Built to relieve overcrowding at the time, this location was in a relatively undeveloped area away from the high density population of the city‘s central core. With its impressive exterior and interior art deco style, the school remains an impressive architectural structure designed by Charles Robinson.

Consequently the school is designated as a Virginia Historical Landmark.

Since its first students graduated in 1932, tens of thousands of students have followed in their footsteps and throughout the years many significant events have transpired. Students attending Tee Jay, as it is colloquially known, in the 1930’s endured the hard times of the Great Depression. With the outbreak of World War II, over 1,200 Thomas Jefferson students and alumni served their country in the military. Of this number 73 gave their lives (made the ultimate sacrifice), with one receiving the Medal of Honor.

With the conclusion of the war, many former students returned to complete graduation requirements. Shortly thereafter, additional requirements were mandated, resulting in the present twelve years needed for most students to graduate. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Thomas Jefferson alumni again answered the call to duty. This conflict was followed by the Vietnam War which also involved Tee Jay alumni and a second Medal of Honor recipient. Throughout the fifties and sixties, the Cold War was a concern to most of the Thomas Jefferson community.

Throughout these periods, high academic achievement was an expectation which permeated the school culture. In Dr. Dan Duke’s book about Thomas Jefferson, The School that Refused to Die, he reports that beginning in the fall of 1957 Advanced Placement courses were offered in world history, trigonometry, algebra and chemistry. Shortly thereafter, AP courses were added in physics, English literature, calculus and foreign languages. While these courses were for college bound students, Thomas Jefferson had a business department which offered courses in bookkeeping, short hand, typing, Distributive Education, and mechanical drawing.  Students who had aspirations of making the military a career joined the school cadet corps. The cadet corps and its marching band were regular features in parades in Richmond and the state.

Extra-curricular activities were also an important part of life at Thomas Jefferson during this era. In addition to athletics, over 20 different service and interest organizations existed that gave students a broad range of opportunities to get involved in student life beyond the classroom.  Students were awarded Student Participation or S.P. points for their involvement in these various activities.

Although Thomas Jefferson had some economic diversity from its opening day, it was racially segregated by legal mandates. Following the Brown v. Board of Education case, Richmond eventually adopted a freedom of choice plan. However, this policy resulted in hardly any integration among Richmond Public Schools. This plan was superseded in the 1966-67 school year by a U.S. Supreme Court mandated (ordered) revised freedom of choice plan applying to faculty as well students. As a result of this second plan, the 1970 Monticello, Tee Jay’s year book, shows the photographs of 122 black students among the student body.

In order to bring about desegregation plaintiffs filed suit in U.S. District Court.  On August 17, 1970, just two weeks before the opening of schools, Judge Robert Merhige ordered Richmond Public Schools to implement the busing of students, teachers and administrators. Administrators and teachers throughout the school system were faced with a daunting task to arrange schedules and classes in such a short amount of time for the 13,000 students and teachers that were bused.  The opening days were peaceful and stressful, but in the days that followed enormous changes would take place at Thomas Jefferson.

A period of declining enrollment followed, resulting in two attempts to close the school, but the students who were denied admission during the days of segregation rallied their classmates, alumni, and other members of the community, then marched from Thomas Jefferson to city hall, and convinced the school board to keep the school open. Once again the school is a growing vibrant educational resource and continues to serve many cultures which reflect dynamic changes in our local, state, and national populations. In addition to a traditional high school program for college bound and non college bound students, a vigorous International Baccalaureate program is offered. This program is offered to any student who lives in the City of Richmond.