Black History Month2024 Highlights: Benjamin Tonsler
Feb 08, 2024|Written By: Faith Kelley
For the second week of Black History Month, we will be highlighting one of the most prominent figures in Charlottesville history, Mr. Benjamin Tonsler.
Benjamin Tonsler was born to parents, Edward and Martha Tonsler, in April of 1854 in Albemarle County, eleven years before slavery was abolished in Virginia. Though not much is known about his early life, we know that he learned how to read and write, which was illegal at the time. Despite his unlikely beginnings, Tonsler went on to graduate from the then-Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. While attending Hampton University, Tonsler met and became friends with Civil Rights Activist, Booker T. Washington, whom Washington Park in Charlottesville Virginia is named after
Following graduation from the University, Tonsler relocated back to Charlottesville as a teacher and began teaching at the then Jefferson Graded School, a school for black students. Tonsler taught as a teacher there for several years until he became the Principal of the Jefferson school. Tonsler remained Principal for nearly 30 years.
During his time as an educator, Tonsler fought to advance the education system for his students. At that time, it was illegal to teach African American students past 8th grade, so Tonsler took the initiative to allow older students to remain after school to study more advanced subjects to prepare them to enter college.
Tonsler’s commitment to his students and his love the for community encouraged him to fight harder for their rights and education. Since his passing in 1917, Tonsler’s family home on 6th Street, which he built himself sometime between 1865 and 1879, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Just around the corner from his home, is Tonsler Park, a park commemorating Tonsler and his dedication to the advancement and education of his community.
Upon His passing, the Daily Progress ran this in their article about Tonsler:
He was described as “quiet and unassuming, but with a clear perception of the vast field for good which lay before those of his race who are ambitious to rise, he impressed himself on the rising generations under him in a way which won the admiration and esteem of all his white neighbors. It may be justly said without exaggeration that he measured up to the high standard which was set by Booker Washington and men of his stamp.”