Lexington’s once all-African American school gains historic recognition

The halls of Lylburn Downing have seen generations of history

Students attend Lylburn Downing, the once all-black school in Lexington, Va. (WSLS)

LEXINGTON, Va. – The halls of Lylburn Downing in Lexington have seen generations of history.

And Vice Mayor Marylin Evans Alexander has lived it, attending the school herself.

It opened in 1927 as an all-black school for students in Lexington, Rockbridge County and beyond. The school’s namesake, Lylburn Downing, was born enslaved and eventually became a minister in Roanoke. At first, the school only served grades 1-9.

“Back in the ‘30s, young people had to leave the area to finish high school. A lot of young people, my father included, went to Christiansburg Institute,” said Alexander. “Some of the students had to go to North Carolina.”

Black parents in the community rallied together, petitioning the school board and pooling their own money to pay for another teacher. The first signature on the petition belonged to Sylvester Evans, Alexander’s grandfather.

“They were very persistent to make sure that their children had an education, even if they had to pay for it themselves,” said Alexander. “Years went by, finally, we had a school that had all 12 grades.”

It wasn’t until the 1940s that black students were allowed to get a diploma from Lylburn Downing High School.

After integration, the school remained open for 11 years until it closed in 1965.

“Segregation remained the status quo,” said Eric Wilson, a teacher at Lylburn Downing Middle School and the executive director of the Rockbridge Historical Society.

He says there’s a hidden side of what’s often seen as the American success story.

“Most of the black teachers at this school lost their jobs,” said Wilson.

Today, the building is nationally recognized. It’s used for school district offices and as a community and teaching space.

On Sunday - Juneteenth - the City of Lexington is unveiling the building’s historic road marker, awarded by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Alexander says it recognizes the resilience of Lexington’s black community and those who came before them.

“After enslavement, after the emancipation, people had nothing. And they made a way out of nothing,” said Alexander. “And they did not want that for their children and they knew the significance of having an education.”

The dedication ceremony begins at 1:30 p.m. outside Lylburn Downing, right near the city’s Juneteenth celebration.


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