In 1869 a new Virginia State Constitution was ratified, providing, for the first time, a system of tax-supported public education. The new constitution called for free schools for all citizens, with separate schools for whites and African Americans.
In 1871 the Lynchburg Public Schools opened with twenty teachers and 718 students. Dr. Robert S. Payne, chairman of the school board, oversaw three school buildings: the Court Street School for white girls, the Monroe School for white boys, and the Jackson Street School for African Americans of both sexes.
Jacob Yoder was appointed superintendent of the black schools. All previously established free schools for black children, including the Polk Street School, affectionately known as “the chicken coop” and originally owned by the Freedmen’s Bureau, were incorporated into the new public school system.
The first African American teachers were hired in 1879. Alice Walker Kinckle and Susan E. Merchant were hired as full-time teachers, working as assistants to Fannie Harvey. Ottawa Ann “Ottie” Gladman was hired as a part-time teacher in 1879 and became full-time in 1880. Other black teachers in Lynchburg’s public schools between 1879 and 1881 included Amelia Elizabeth Perry, Frank Trigg, and Rosa Daniel Kinckle.
In 1881, the year that Jackson Street High School opened, the Lynchburg Virginian reported that “the schools are constantly increasing in membership and are improving in scholarship and morale, thanks to the free system, which the colored people appreciate, and will be likely to sustain.”
Payne School was built in 1885, and in 1891 an old soap factory on Salem Street was cleared out to hold the consolidated classes from the Jackson Street African Methodist Episcopal Church and Camp Davis. In 1910, when City Council appropriated $200,000 for new public schools, included was the eight-room Yoder School for African Americans on Jackson Street.
Nineteen-sixteen saw completion of the four-room Armstrong School, named for Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a founder of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.