Read-In 1: T.C. Williams the Superintendent
In this first Read-In of the series, Dr. Douglas S. Reed discussed seminal moments in the career of T.C.Williams - from the firing of a cafeteria worker to his stubborn resistance to integration, and his use of special education to further segregate Alexandria's students - actions that reveal the man behind the name and title. ACPS Director of Equity & Alternative Programs Kennetra Wood identified ties to systemic racism rooted in our system.
T.C. Williams the Superintendent and the Legacy That Lives On Today
“We have no aspiration to be spectacular.”
An establishment man, concerned with efficiency and middle-of-the-road educational policies, Superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams once said of ACPS, “We have no aspiration to be spectacular.”
Williams was 39 years-old when he became superintendent in 1933. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, before serving in World War I. He was also a man who did not like to have his photo taken, Prof. Reed said.
A frugal disciplinarian and a fan of rudimentary “back to basics” academic curriculum that did little to inspire, he ruled our city public schools for almost thirty years until his retirement in 1963.
Ms. Wood told the first of our community “Read Ins” how Williams “represented racist beliefs of the Jim Crow era,” and “was a stark segregationist and who used policy to block students’ access and opportunity.” Today, Alexandria’s only public high school is a radically different place, she said, which has a “commitment to social justice and racial equity.”
While across the US times were changing, Williams unashamedly fought the desegregation of our schools tooth and nail, even after Alexandria’s reluctant acceptance in 1958 of the 1954 Board vs Brown ruling.
When in the summer of ‘58, fourteen African-American ACPS students sought transfers to white schools, Williams seemingly did everything in his power to block or delay these transfers.
Prof. Reed detailed how he manipulated policy to keep black and white children in separate, and far from equal, schools and how he rejected petition after petition on spurious grounds.
For one eight year-old girl, Williams said, “While her standing at (the black school) was one of leadership and excellence,” she will be “in the lower reaches of her class (at the white school), unrecognized and of no special note. This is not a good change.”
Responding to a petition from a seventh grade Black boy, he said the student would find it “a frustrating and discouraging experience to pass from a position of prestige in one place to a position of low rating in another… It does not appear from the record that this boy has either the ambition of the spirit to enable him to compete successfully with even the lowest of the seventh grade [at the white school].”
Ultimately, only 75 Black students successfully switched schools during Williams’s tenure. That figure totaled just three percent of the Black student population.
Prof. Reed also discussed the provision of services to students with disabilities in Alexandria which he described as “troubling” and originating as a racial containment strategy to limit exposure of white students to black students.
The Talented and Gifted (TAG) program was another method utilized by Williams to unofficially segregate students.
To this day, TAG still has a concerningly low percentage of African American participation.
“Today we’ve moved from the segregated policies and are more inclusionary,” Miss Wood said. “We are integrating and including our students. We have a belief that students can learn and progress can be made regardless of their disability.”
She added: “We’ve come a long way but we still see some of those underlying beliefs and systems and biases that come into play when we think about the perception of our students.”
Williams’s discriminatory approach did not end at his students. Staff members were also targeted.
Those who dared to challenge him often found themselves cast out. A cook at Lyles Crouch was fired after she joined a lawsuit demanding Alesandria desegregate schools
Blois Hundley wanted her two daughters to enroll in desegregated schools but Williams was outraged when he found out an employee was named as a petitioner. Calling it a “slap in the face,” he terminated her position.
He later reversed that decision when the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating the superintendent for the violation of Mrs Hundley’s civil rights. She refused his offer to be reinstated.