Brown v. Board and the Desegregation of Alexandria City Public Schools
This year marks the 65th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
Although Alexandria neither led the charge to resist desegregation nor was the first to desegregate in Virginia, in many ways the story of the initial steps to desegregate has come to represent the intensity of the issues and the racial conflict that persisted long after desegregation.
Many of us know the story of Remember the Titans. But the story of the desegregation of Alexandria City Public Schools is far more intense and darker than the glamorized and sanitized story presented by Disney. While ACPS and our community celebrate our diversity today, it took federal legislation, political unrest, violent protests, and changes in the composition of Alexandria’s School Board and City Council and a new superintendent to get to what at least looked like full integration — and even then it was not fully integrated in practice. It would be twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education before a full integration plan was in place in Alexandria and even now some of the issues the city faced at that time are still relevant today.
This article is the first in a series that explores the impact of Brown v. Board of Education on our schools and community, highlighting important milestones and key figures who played a role in the desegregation of Alexandria’s schools.
The entrenched nature of the Old Guard in both the city and the schools meant that the federal court decision ordering Alexandria City Public Schools to comply with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 was a direct challenge to the local political situation. Alexandria’s mayor from 1952 to 1955 was Marshall J. Beverly, a cousin of U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. who led the statewide pro-segregation campaign known as Massive Resistance, while Alexandria State Delegate James M. Thomson was Bird’s brother-in-law. Alongside them was Superintendent Thomas Chambliss (T.C.) Williams and a conservative School Board. The affiliation was so strong that when the city eventually complied with desegregation it brought down the local regime.
Across Virginia, schools that desegregated voluntarily were closed down. In Alexandria, local officials strategically used these threats of state-imposed punishment and closure to argue for an indefinite delay of desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. The court decision was not challenged in Alexandria until four years after it became law. In the summer of 1958 fourteen African-American students in Alexandria sought transfers to white schools. Two days before the Alexandria desegregation trial was due to begin in October 1958, the School Board enacted a resolution that announced six criteria on which to evaluate transfers. Although none of these were based on race, they collectively allowed the Board to deny all 14 applicants.
In one case an African-American girl performed above her peers at the white school but the Board said:
"This girl, if admitted to the sixth grade of either Patrick Henry or William Ramsay School will be the only pupil of her race if enrolled. This will be a novel situation. Such a situation will constitute a disruption of established social and psychological relationships between pupils in our schools as they have previously operated.”
The federal District Court ruled that, using the Board’s own criteria, nine of the students must be admitted to three all-white schools. On February 10, 1959 we have this iconic picture in the newspapers of the students making history.
In June 1959 the City Council voted to remove Herman G. Moeller from the School Board. He had been the only Board member to vote to desegregate the schools. The school Board continued to resist the transfer of African-American students to all-white schools as far as it possibly could. This was a policy of containment.
So what changed?
In January 1963, Superintendent T.C. Williams retired and the Board appointed John Albohm. But it wasn’t smooth sailing. Albohm announced a plan to fully desegregate within five weeks of starting with ACPS, moving 63 students immediately to different schools. The Board then put forward multiple motions to get him fired. Albohm was implementing changes even before the Civil Rights Act was in place but it nearly cost him his job.
Albohm also had to find compromises to make desegregation work. He introduced the honors programs, primarily to stop white flight. He tackled concerns that his efforts to address the needs of African-American students were taking away from other groups. He also started to address the needs of children in poverty so that they could succeed if they were transferred to an integrated school. These were new and challenging concepts at the time but have had a lasting impact on the way we operate as a division.
Desegregation split the elites though and peeled off a group of more liberal thinking conservative Democrats. Alexandria’s middle-class African-American population seized the moment and began to insist on better housing, education conditions and a political voice. In the summer of 1964, Ferdinand T. Day was appointed to the School Board when it expanded from six to nine members. He later became the first African-American to be elected chair of a public school board in Virginia.
According to Doug Reed, a professor at Georgetown University, whose book, Building the Federal Schoolhouse this post is based upon:
"The turmoil of American society was worked out in America’s classrooms with many white families confronting poverty and racial conflict within ‘their’ classrooms for the first time.”
T.C. Williams High School came out of this turmoil, which surprisingly can seem to have parallels to some of today’s national events.
In 1969, a fourteen-year old student was beaten by a white police officer. Two days later a group of African-Americans marched to City Council demanding the officer’s dismissal. Alexandria was bombed nightly with 18 firebombs and a Molotov cocktail. In May 1970, just eight months after the police beating and two weeks before a city council election, an African-American high school junior named Robin Gibson walked into a 7-Eleven on the corner of Commonwealth and West Glebe and was shot by the white store manager. Six consecutive nights of rioting and firebombing followed. More than 1,500 people attended Gibson’s funeral, while the store manager was tried by a white judge and jury and served just six months behind bars. With Election Day just two days after Gibson’s funeral, black voter turnout doubled and Alexandria elected its first African-American City Council member, Ira Robinson.
The turmoil was played out in schools with racial tensions spilling into classrooms and the gymnasium. Many parents perceived the continuation of past school policies as simply an effort to maintain racial hierarchies. This was played out with disputes over discipline and school quality. In November 1970 a group of 20 white youth burned a cross in front of George Washington High School, a school that was 25 percent African-American. Bathrooms were taken over, tarred and set on fire, and there were violent conflicts between students. Superintendent Albohm tried to talk to students but was told, “I’m tired of being told to go to my room.”
Albohm was required by the federal government to demonstrate the integration of four grades to continue to receive funding. While the elementary schools were most segregated at the time, he opted to unify the high schools, partly to help ease the racial tension. He hoped that this would ease concerns about African-Americans being relegated to declining schools. In what was dubbed the 6-2-2-2 plan, T.C. Williams High School would be built to serve all students in the city in grades 11 and 12. While Albohm could not immediately offer the African-American principals and leadership they wanted, he could offer a chance to create a new school and climate. It was an attempt to anchor the experiences of all Alexandrians in one common place.
Brown v. Board and Football: Both a Problem and a Solution
Athletics has always been a source of pride and tension in the story of the desegregation of Alexandria City Public Schools.
Sporting rivalries were not the reason behind the violent clashes across the city and in the schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but they often proved to be an outlet for long-felt frustrations. Moreover, these rivalries that frequently spilled over onto the athletic fields had the impact of steering the direction that the city ultimately chose to take on its path toward desegregation.
While the federal government was pushing Alexandria to focus on desegregation of its elementary schools where it was most keenly felt, the violent rivalries between students at Alexandria's three high schools forced Superintendent John C. Albohm to focus elsewhere. And because the superintendent felt he had to focus on finding a solution at the high school, elementary desegregation was pushed back to another time.
This article is the second in a series that explores the impact of Brown v. Board of Education on our schools and community, highlighting important milestones and key figures who played a role in the desegregation of Alexandria’s schools. The first was The Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education - What Does it Mean for Alexandria.
1969 marked ten years since the nine African-American children crossed a police line to become the first black children to be educated at a previously all-white school. But instead of marking an end of racial tensions, the event marks the beginning of an era of violence and racial protest.
With three rival high schools in Alexandria, violence often spilled onto the athletics fields. In 1969, following the beating of a 14-year old African-American student, a football game between Hammond and George Washington high schools resulted in firebombings and rocks being thrown by both sides. Just a few months later when an African-American T.C. Williams junior was shot and killed by a white storekeeper at a Seven Eleven, the violence erupted once again on the athletic fields of the high schools. Violence following basketball games at George Washington High School ensured the school received an official warning by the Virginia High School League — a slur on the reputation of the schools as a whole. The continuing issues at football games that season were so bad that the school division moved all Friday night games to afternoons.
By May 1971, Superintendent John Albohm was deeply worried about African-American concerns about being relegated to declining schools. He was also concerned about the level of racial tensions, violent school protests and was confident that the new integrated T.C. Williams High School would reduce rivalries and foster greater cohesion within the community. But his need to act to integrate the schools was far from altruistic. It came from a different source entirely. By 1971 the federal government was demanding that Alexandria show that at least four grade levels in Alexandria City Public Schools were fully integrated — or face having a plan imposed on them and their federal funding withdrawn.
Melvin Miller, an African-American lawyer who lived in the community behind the new T.C. Williams High School off Quaker Lane, reminded Albohm that “all deliberate speed” was no longer acceptable and that if the Board did not desegregate it would have plans imposed on it within thirty of sixty days. Miller told them that it only took one plaintiff the day after the new school opened to challenge the system and they would find themselves with a plan that was not their own imposed on them.
To implement his political compromise of a 6-2-2-2 grade plan — aimed at uniting all Alexandria students under one fully integrated high school (the final 2 in the plan representing the unification of grades 11 and 12 at T.C. Williams High School) — Superintendent Albohm needed the support of the School Board.
The Board was initially not in support of the plan.
On May 19, 1971, former mayor Marshall Beverley — a cousin of Harry F. Byrd and ally of many Board members — told the School Board he questioned the necessity of the entire desegregation enterprise. “There is nothing that has come before me that says that the school system is not in compliance at this time,” he said.
To win the Board over, Superintendent Albohm used the lure of athletics. The potential for Alexandria to produce unbeatable athletic teams was one of the key arguments he used to win the School Board’s support for desegregation.
"If this plan is approved, juniors and seniors throughout this city will be blended into one great high school whose entire sports program will be second to none in Northern Virginia and comparable to the best in this state,” Director of Athletics William Blair told the School Board in spring 1971.
That summer the plan was presented, debated and voted. By the fall, T.C. Williams was fully integrated for grades 11 and 12. That fall, the subsequent success of the T.C. Williams football team in the Virginia state championship made the reorganization of the school system easier to accept all around. The decision to appoint an interracial coaching team in the form of Head Coach Herman Boone and Assistant Coach Bill Yoast — although not without its own tensions — fostered an atmosphere of racial respect on the team. That was strengthened at the Gettysburg pre-season training camp. To foster an atmosphere of respect at T.C. Williams, members of the football team patrolled the hallways wearing team jerseys to help minimize conflict at the school.
John Stubbins, director of secondary education, told the Washington Post:
"It’s pretty obvious there’s been a tremendous spillover into the entire system because of that team. The parents were thrilled to death to see these kids getting along and it’s really helped. A lot of minds have been changed at the dinner table.”
What we don't see in the Disney version of the story in the movie Remember the Titans, is that while T.C. Williams High School was relatively free of clashes when the plan was put in place in September 1971, Hammond and George Washington high schools — both serving ninth and tenth-grade students — continued to see fights and conflicts between students making their voices heard. While the conflicts experienced within the integration struggles in Alexandria may have been played out on the athletic fields, they did not start there and certainly did not end with the T.C. state championship win.
At Hammond High School, white students threw rocks at buses carrying African-American students from the East End of the cit\y and numerous fights broke out between students of different colors. Four students — three white and one black — were arrested on the second day of school for disorderly conduct and carrying concealed weapons. That evening, a white parent told the School Board that he would no longer be sending his daughter to school with “black animalistic behavior.” An African-American parent in the audience at the time told the Board that evening that she was “shocked to be in an audience of people who refer to my children and race as animals.” She said many black students had suffered abuse by white students at Hammond.
The focus on resolving the violence at the high school level had another impact. All the focus had been on the high school and the desegregation of the elementary schools had barely begun. We tend to think of the story of T.C. Williams as the whole story of Alexandria's integration. But at the end of 1971 when the T.C. Williams held the State Championship cup high, Alexandria's elementary schools were still almost as segregated as they always had been.
Brown v. Board: 60 Years On – The Action that Took 14 Years to Complete
On a damp grey morning at 8:15 a.m. on February 10, 1959, three African-American children who had previously been bussed across town each morning to attend all-black Lyles-Crouch walked into the all-white William Ramsay School. Their actions were the start of a long slow process to desegregate Alexandria City Public Schools that took another 14 years to complete.
Those African-American children almost immediately disappeared into the school system and only a handful of the nine students have spoken about their experiences that day. Kathryn Turner was 12 at the time. Her sister Sandra was in second grade when, along with their brother Gerald, they were reluctantly permitted by the superintendent and School Board to take classes at William Ramsay School.
The following are ACPS interviews with Kathryn Turner and Sandra Turner-Bond.
You were one of the nine children who transferred from the all-black Lyles-Crouch School to the all-white William Ramsay School on February 10, 1959. What Do you remember about the events of that day?
I have few recollections of any of this. Back in the 50s the way parents raised children it was not a participatory experience for the child. Today I’m a little amazed at the way parents and children interact. We didn’t have that latitude. We were never told this is what you are going to do. I don't remember conversations about the fact we were going to do something different or scary. I just recall going to a different school.
Where did you end up going to school?
In 1959 I was 12, Sandra my sister was in the 2nd grade, Gerald my brother was in the 1st grade. We were being bused in to Lyles-Crouch. I was at Lyles-Crouch until 1959, then I went to Ramsay for a year, then I went to Hammond for a year. Four years after the NAACP action our family moved to DC.
Where did your family live?
I was born in Chicago and my parents moved from Chicago to Alexandria when I was three years old. We moved to live with my maternal grandparents in Lincolnia. We lived right where Landmark shopping center is today. The community in which I lived was an all-black community called Lincolnia and it was a rural community at the time. My grandfather, my maternal grandparents had two daughters, my mom and my aunt, and they had divided the property between each of the daughters. My mom and her sister had a house. At one time, my grandfather was a farmer. When we first moved there we had a well and we had an outhouse. It was pretty rural and it was poor. I didn't feel poor at the time but it was poor. Over time my father got the water and sewer connected to the house and we didn’t use the well anymore. We were a little more civilized. We had more modern conveniences but initially it was farmland.
What do you remember about the bus ride to Lyles-Crouch?
I lived in an all black community and we were being bused to the black elementary school which was Lyles-Crouch. Only one time I got into a fight because I didn’t like what someone said about me. It had nothing to do with anything racial. Everyone on the bus was black.
How did you get involved in the NAACP civil action lawsuit?
My father being from Chicago had never lived in a segregated environment like Alexandria. For him, it was quite an afront. My mother, Edith Smith Turner, was born and reared in Alexandria. It’s interesting, my mother had a masters degree from a black college. It was unusual at that time for an African-American woman to have a masters degree but she was very focused. They were both committed to education and both very active in the NAACP. That’s how they got involved. Mother was on the School Board at one time and she was very active in the PTA organization. So their whole approach was to get the best education possible for their children.
What do you remember about William Ramsay School?
I really don't remember very much. But I don't remember it being hostile, but my sister does. It may have been but I don't remember it. I do remember that nobody went home with me. And I liked my biology teacher, Miss Gates. She was white. All the teachers at Ramsay and Hammond were white. I loved the subject she taught and she expected a lot of me. I appreciated that.
What did you do after leaving Alexandria?
I graduated from DC Public Schools and went to Howard University where I majored in chemistry and minored in applied physics and math. I got into software in the ‘60s and in 1985 I set up my own company and we do work for the Defense Department now. I have also sat on the board of directors for public companies.
What lessons did you learn from your experiences in Alexandria?
One lesson I learned though from my experience at Ramsay and Hammond in the 1950s is how to fit comfortably into any group of people. I have been able to fit into a lot of different situations in life. The more different experiences you have, the broader your mind and the more able you are to achieve things. That’s what the experience in Alexandria did for me.
Why do you think your parents got involved in the lawsuit?
My parents always had a very positive attitude that everyone is equal, that everyone is a child of God and that everyone is accepted and no one is less than or more than anyone else and everyone has the right to be all they can be.
How did this philosophy influence you?
Racism is alive and well and there are times when I have experienced it. That’s why I started my own business — to create an environment where everyone can have the opportunity based on their capabilities, not on their race or color.
You and your siblings were three of the nine children who transferred from the all-black Lyles-Crouch School to the all-white William Ramsay School on February 10, 1959. What Do you remember about the events of that day?
I don’t recall being frightened going to our new school but remember a crowd of people as we were going into school and not getting much of a warm welcome when we went into the classroom. Teachers didn’t want it to be disruptive. Overwhelming memories from that time would be feelings of isolation, being marginalized, and not being fully welcomed or accepted.
What do you attribute to your success in school?
As an elementary student, I adapted to isolation and was determined to succeed. I was a good student and I worked hard. My parents instilled the idea of meritocracy in us — work hard.
It must have been difficult being different from everyone else. How did that impact you?
I had two friends that I remember and we were quite different from the others — one white girl from Appalachia and one girl from Hawaii. We looked different. Children are resilient. I remember witnessing slights and degradation in everyday life in America — not being waited on at lunch counters and the inability to try on clothes in department stores. As I got older, in the ‘60s, I wanted to push for human and civil rights. I wasn’t afraid of a white college or the Ivy League.
What do you think you’ve learned from the experience?
Looking back, I wish teachers and classmates had been more accepting of this kind of change. They didn’t value what diversity brings and that’s why you saw so many strikes outside of schools. White flight went on to create separate and unequal educational facilities.
Resistance was so intense and so violent and we saw massive white flight out of public schools. Until we accept and value diversity and having the right to equal education, it will be like groundhog day. I don't think affirmative action is some unfair gift to people who have been historically disadvantaged because you still have to work hard, really hard.
Do you have a message for young people today?
I encourage young people to try hard, expect the best, and work at getting it. You have the right, the opportunity, and the obligation to have the very best. Work hard.
The history depicted here is derived in great measure from “Building the Federal School House: Localism and the American Education State,” by Douglas Reed. The book goes into extensive detail about the evolution of the governance of public schools as local, state and federal bodies reconstructed the operation of schools in the U.S. using the City of Alexandria as a case study.