Brown v. Board: 60 Years On – The Action that Took 14 Years to Complete
On a damp gray 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 into 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.