Segregation, Desegregation, and Civil Rights in Virginia

African American Heritage | History

Arlington teachers participating in the March 2014 content academy. - Photo by Pat Jarrett
Arlington teachers participating in the March 2014 content academy. - Photo by Pat Jarrett

By David Bearinger

How do we help children understand what the experience of school desegregation in Virginia meant to those who lived through it? How can we explain this complex story in a way students can fully grasp? How do we persuade them that this history still matters more than a half-century later?

Arlington teachers participating in the March 2014 content academy. - Photo by Pat Jarrett
Arlington teachers participating in the March 2014 content academy. – Photo by Pat Jarrett

It’s a rainy Saturday, March 29, 2014. Dozens of Arlington County teachers are gathering in the art room of Hoffman-Boston School to explore these questions with a dream team of historians and community scholars.

Today’s program is the second of two content academies offered through a partnership between VFH and Arlington County Public Schools. The academies are one-day, content-rich programs designed to immerse teachers in the subject matter they teach, to inspire and challenge them to think about these subjects in fresh new ways.

The first academy, held last October, focused on Virginia Indian history and tribal cultures in the present. Today, the next six
hours are devoted to exploring the history of segregation, desegregation, and civil rights in Virginia, with explicit connections to the Virginia Standards of Learning for the 4th and 7th grades.

The focus is on two Virginia counties—Arlington and Prince Edward. Arlington was the first locality in Virginia to begin desegregating its public schools following the U.S. Supreme Court’s two separate decisions in Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955). In Prince Edward, the all-white board of supervisors cut off funds for public education in the autumn of 1959, closing the public schools for five years in defiance of the court’s desegregation mandate.

Our challenge is to desegregate the way we tell the story of desegregation. It’s not a black story or a white story. It’s a community story. – Lacy Ward Jr.

These are complicated stories. The inequities of segregated public education prior to Brown were stark. The road to Brown was long and arduous, and the Supreme Court decision, when it came, was a landmark in the struggle for civil rights.

But it’s also true that desegregation turned out to be a mixed blessing for many all-black schools like Hoffman-Boston, and for many of Virginia’s black neighborhoods where school was at the center of community life.

There were losses as well as gains, in other words. There are pitfalls in a “triumphalist” reading of the desegregation story. This will emerge as one of the day’s most important themes.

Another example. In Prince Edward, white students who could not afford private school faced many of the same grim choices black students were forced to make in response to the school closings. Some had to leave the county to continue their education. Others stayed and managed as best they could until the schools reopened. Some ended their formal education and never went back.

We have to understand where we are coming from so that we can appreciate where we are going. – Dr. Alfred Taylor

It’s tough to come to terms with this history personally, even tougher to communicate it to students six decades later. True, but our shared understanding of citizenship and community was also tested and challenged during the desegregation era; both Virginia and the nation changed profoundly as a result. Those changes shape our lives today.

Which is one way of explaining why this history still matters. But there’s another way of looking at the desegregation story, too, and it’s through personal experience, through the memories of people who lived it.

In the late 1940s, Hoffman-Boston was the focus of an important legal case, Carter v. School Board of Arlington County, which challenged curriculum disparities under “separate but equal.” It’s a historic place in its own right; the perfect setting for the stories we’re about to hear.

Pictured (left to right): Dr. Alfred Taylor, Lacy Ward Jr, Kimberley Graves, Michael Jones - Photo by Pat Jarrett
Pictured (left to right): Dr. Alfred Taylor, Lacy Ward Jr, Kimberley Graves, Michael Jones – Photo by Pat Jarrett

Kimberley Graves, the school’s principal, is welcoming teachers as they arrive. The four scholars are making last-minute preparations, ready to begin.

Peter Wallenstein teaches history at Virginia Tech and has written widely on the history of race and racial segregation in America, including in his book Tell the Court I Love My Wife (2004). Larissa Smith Fergeson is a professor at Longwood University and another of Virginia’s leading scholars of the civil rights era.

Lacy Ward Jr. is the director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville. The museum interprets the history of desegregation in Prince Edward and is a “site of memory” for the civil rights struggle nationwide. (Ward has since stepped down as director of the museum. He is now the director of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina.)

The fourth member of the team, Dr. Alfred Taylor, is a community historian who has been researching Arlington’s African American communities for more than fifty years. He’s also the author of the forthcoming book Bridge Builders of Nauck/Green Valley, supported by a grant from VFH.

All four are gifted, inspired presenters. But when Dr. Taylor speaks about his own life and his struggle to secure an education in the pre-Brown era, many of us are moved to tears. Later on, he’ll moderate a community conversation designed to draw forth the memories and the voices of the Hoffman-Boston neighborhood and the broader Arlington community, asking: What do you remember about the movement from segregation to desegregation? How did it affect your family? And why does this matter today?

The idea to follow the content academy with a community event was conceived by Cathy Hix, Arlington County’s social studies supervisor, and Emma Violand-Sanchez, a member of the county school board. We’re in the Hoffman-Boston auditorium and more than a hundred people are in the audience. The first featured speaker is Michael Jones, one of four African American students who were the first to integrate Arlington’s public schools. His presence is a powerful reminder that the makers of this part of Virginia’s history still live among us.

The SoLs are the bricks. This content academy provides the mortar, the adhesive connection between the bricks. – participating teacher

Other speakers include Mrs. Louise McGregor, now ninety-two, who began teaching Home Economics at Hoffman-Boston in 1958; the Rev. Richard Green, a plaintiff in the Carter case who was eventually hired to teach in the same school where he had once been denied admission; and Yvonne Dangerfield, a former student at Hoffman-Boston who later served as the school’s principal.

In our work, VFH seeks to blend two streams of knowledge: one stream comes from the world of academic scholarship, the other flows through the community itself. VFH is also committed to serving the needs of Virginia’s teachers and to creating a complete, accurate, and honest portrait, of Virginia, past and present.

Programs like this matter. Strengthening the hand of teachers in the classroom matters. Blending the two streams of knowledge matters. So do the voices of Hoffman-Boston; and so do the kinds of partnerships that made these two pilot academies possible. Their success inspires us to do more.