Recollections of George Ferguson

From Porch Swings To Patios: An Oral History Project of Charlottesville Neighborhoods, 1914-1980, Wilma T. Mangione, editor, The City of Charlottesville, 1990.

George Ferguson was born on February 16, 1911 at 307 West Main Street. The son of a physician, he chose to become an undertaker rather than follow in his father's footsteps as a doctor because he "didn't like school." He recalls physical, social, economic, and racial differences in Charlottesville neighborhoods.

"I began my undertakers business here in 1941, and was one of three black undertakers in Charlottesville. After looking at other things black people could do fifty years ago, the only other professional opportunities available were to be a doctor, dentist, minister, or school teacher. At that time black, lawyers weren't too popular.

"I went to the old Jefferson Elementary School on 4th Street N.W., the only school for black children at that time. That old school building is no longer there. I went out of state for high school because there was no black high school until 1926. I finished school at Virginia State College. There was not much racial tension when I was growing up. Everything was segregated; schools, theaters, soda fountains. I didn't notice the segregation that much, but my mother was very upset when they put a rope up in the old Jefferson Theater to segregate blacks and whites. They already had it set up so that blacks used the balcony and then the rope segregated the balcony. When schools were integrated, my daughter was a plaintiff in a desegregation court case. The judge assigned her to Lane High School as she was a senior. That will be twenty-five years ago this fall. After black children were assigned to schools, the schools were closed and did not reopen until February. Then they had the black children in the superintendent's office, not in classrooms. In the fall of September 1959, a few were let in classrooms. The present coach of Charlottesville High School recently said in a newspaper article that because they wouldn't let him play football in the school he was assigned to, he went back to Burley. And here he is now, the coach of Charlottesville High School!

"I don't think of myself as having been raised in a well-off family. The "bad" housing situation for blacks in Charlottesville was distorted. Charlottesville has never had an all-black neighborhood. Richmond does that but not Charlottesville. Whites lived across the street from me. My father even had a few white patients. Vinegar Hill only went from Preston Avenue to Water Street. The area at the foot of Vinegar Hill was called "Wine Cellar Field." Just above that there were nice homes which blacks lived in. Whites were across the street from them. There were some neighborhoods that blacks lived in that were depressed and some neighborhoods that whites lived in that were depressed.

"The University of Virginia was integrated before the high schools. I wasn't welcome there. The University of Virginia Hospital had segregated wards, and I broke that up. We started filing complaints with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Black patients were put in the cellar with the pipes and everything. They were also put in the halls and people would open the side doors and the drafts would come in. We wrote letters. The hospital was not as big as it is now, there was only the old section. But race relations have really improved here now.

"When I was growing up there was no confrontations because you never saw whites except walking up and down the street. There were one or two that I spoke to. There were segregated cemeteries also, but not now. The city cemetery was not segregated at first but eventually a fence was put up to segregate it.

"The church played a big part in how we spent our spare time growing up. The blue laws kept the theaters closed on Sunday. We went to church, Sunday school, and night services. There were a group of boys I played ball with. My father had a car, but we still walked a lot. Most people had a horse and buggy. Much of West Main Street was residential. Parades came down that street. The circus came in at the Southern Railroad Station. That was the day you got up at 4:30 in the morning to watch them unload. They came down Main Street at midday in a parade.

"Other times, we would go up to see the carrier pigeons released from the railroad station early on Sunday mornings. It's a sport. They would all have numbers on them. You time them from the time of departure to their destination. The pigeons came up by train from all over: North Carolina, Tennessee, etc. About ten years ago, they brought them to Scott Stadium for release.

"Charlottesville has grown a lot. It's a nice, quiet little town and it has really come along.

Ella Baylor Recollections Thomas Ferguson Inge, Sr. Recollections Rebecca McGinness Recollections Brief History of the Rivanna River

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Last Modified: Thursday, 28-Jul-2005 17:00:33 EDT