The gridiron on which the Burley High School Bears triumphed decades ago has fallen into disrepair with grass taking over the wooden bleachers, which have splintered in some areas.
“It’s an eyesore,” said Jimmy Hollins, a 1965 graduate of the school. “That field means a lot to the people who went to Burley and who played sports there.”
Hollins and the rest of the Burley Varsity Club are working to raise $70,000 to help refurbish the field and stands. The club was founded in 2007 to honor and preserve the history of Burley, which served as the high school for African American children in Albemarle County and Charlottesville from 1951 to 1967. It reopened as Burley Middle School in 1974.
The Varsity Club is partnering with the Albemarle County school division on the project, which would cost $143,000. The Varsity Club is planning to raise $70,000. Hollins said the division is chipping in the rest. The amount being contributed by the county could not be confirmed on Friday.
Renovations would include redoing the field, cutting back the overgrowth, fixing the concrete walk above the stands and work on the bleachers themselves.
“I don’t put blame on anybody,” Hollins said. “It’s just something that fell through the cracks.”
The field has since been repurposed for baseball and the stands aren’t in constant use. Burley middle-schoolers also can use a soccer field and track off Rose Hill Drive. Hollins wants to see area high schools play baseball at Burley and to see the field used more in general.
“I just don’t want to see it sitting like that,” he said.
Raising the $70,000 for the project will take two years or less, Hollins expects. The club has shown fundraising prowess before when it brought in $90,000 to pay for a memorial to former Burley students that was installed outside the school in October.
After the unveiling, a graduate approached Hollins about the state of the field.
“One of the members said, ‘We have to get something done about that field. It’s in horrible shape,’” Hollins recalled.
He went and looked for himself, finding a field that didn’t look anything like he remembered from his days on the Burley Bears football team. He doesn’t know when the field started to deteriorate and doesn’t blame the county.
Fundraising has been slow-going so far, Hollins said. Donations to the nonprofit can be sent to 819 Henry Ave., Charlottesville, VA 22903. Hollins can be reached at (434) 825-6617.
“We want to see this field refurbished, and we are not leaving no stone unturned,” he said. “We are asking everybody to pitch in and help. … Burley is a part and always will be a part of the city black community and the Albemarle County black community.”
In 2010, the club, with School Board approval, renamed to football field to honor Robert Smith and Clarence Jones, the school’s two head coaches who led the Bears football team to several district championships.
“I know our coaches are in Heaven looking down on us with a frown on their face because of the way that field looks,” Hollins said. “It never looked like that before.”
In 1956, during the height of Massive Resistance, the Bears went undefeated, not allowing an opponent to score a single point. Hollins graduated in 1965 and played under Jones, who led the team to a state runner-up finish in 1964.
Fixing the field is an urgent project for the club because Burley alumni are getting older. To see it improved would “bring back a lot of great memories,” Hollins said.
Burley High School was built for black students in the city and county when “separate but equal” was the law of the land. The school boards in Charlottesville and Albemarle County jointly managed the facility. However, three years after it opened, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional.
Charlottesville City Schools integrated in 1959 after a court battle that led Gov. J. Lindsay Almond to close two schools for five months. Meanwhile, Albemarle County started integrating its schools in 1963, a process fully completed by 1967.
To mark Burley’s role during this time, the Varsity Club wants to make the school a historical landmark. Hollins thinks fixing up the playing field will help the school achieve that status.