Virginia Avenue Colored School

Historical Marker #2593 stands at the site of Muhammad Ali’s grade school. Known at the time as the Virginia Avenue Colored School, Ali was a pupil there from 1948 to 1954. Ali, at the time called Cassius Clay, first began to hone his boxing talents while attending the school.

The Louisville public school system was founded in 1829. The schools created were for white children only. There were limited opportunities for African American children to receive an education. Paid schools or those run by churches often only operated for several months of the year. While the Kentucky General Assembly provided for the creation of schools for African American students in 1866, there was little effort put forth by the state or local governments to implement construction.

The federal agency, the Freedman’s Bureau, built and operated a limited number of schools in Kentucky during the 1860s and 1870s, but state and city support for African American education was paltry. Central Colored School, which later became Central High School (Marker #2590) was one of the few institutions founded during this era with local public funds. Racist restrictions such as a new school being six hundred feet from a whites only school further complicated matters. In spite of halfhearted support from local government, independent and ecclesiastic schools for African Americans grew throughout the end of the 19th century. By turn of the century there were hundreds of schools for African American students and most operated for at least 5 months of the year.

The community identified the need for more education opportunities and by the 1920s, the African American community began to exercise its power in advocating for more local public investment in education for it’s students. In 1920, black Louisvillians helped defeat a bond issue to expand the University of Louisville. African Americans aligned against this measure because it did not expand opportunity in education for people of color. The next year however African American voters were responsible for the passage of a different School Board bond initiative in 1921-1922 which did address some of its community’s needs. Funds from this bond went to construction of a brand-new facility for the existing Virginia Avenue Colored School—making the Virginia Avenue school the first purpose built public school for African American students in Louisville.

For the design and construction of the new school Louisville hired Samuel Plato (#2581 and #2585), renowned African American Architect and contractor. Plato built several notable buildings in Louisville including the Broadway Temple A.M.E. Zion Church.

Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) attended Virginia Avenue School from 1948 to 1954. It was during his time at Virginia Avenue School that Ali began to train as a boxer.
While the Supreme Court of the United States outlawed segregationist policies in 1954, Louisville schools remained effectively segregated until the 1970s. Renovations to the school in the late nineteen sixties were an attempt to increase capacity in the African American school in order to stave off actual integration. In 1970, the school’s name was changed to Jessie R. Carter Elementary School to honor the first Principal.

In 2004 the Virginia Avenue School was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Two reasons were cited for its significance: its important place in the history of education in the Louisville community and as an example of the work of Samuel Plato. In 2011 the school moved to a new facility on Bohne Ave. Later, the building was renovated and transformed into the West End School, a private, tuition free boarding school for boys.

The marker reads:

Virginia Avenue Colored School

The Virginia Avenue Colored School
opened in 1923. It was constructed
via a million-dollar bond the
Louisville Board of Education used
to acquire sites and build new
structures. Samuel Plato, one of
the country’s first African
American architects, was the
contractor. The school was at the
center of community activities in
the city’s Parkland neighborhood.

Virginia Avenue Colored School

A young Muhammad Ali, then Cassius
Clay, lived less than a mile from
Virginia Avenue Colored School
at 3302 Grand Avenue. Ali
attended the school between
1948-1954. The school was renamed
Jessie R. Carter Elementary School
in 1970 and was integrated in
1975. West End School, a private
school for boys, opened at the
site in 2005.

This marker was dedicated on October 24, 2019.