Read-In 2: Alexandria's Role in Massive Resistance and School Segregation
Georgetown University Professor of Government and Director of the MA Program in Educational Transformation, Douglas S. Reed, and Kennetra Wood, ACPS Executive Director of Equity and Alternative Programs, hosted the second of three community “Read-Ins” to help frame the public discussion around the possibility of renaming both T.C. Williams HIgh School and Matthew Maury Elementary School.
“Alexandria’s Role in Massive Resistance and School Segregation” saw Prof. Reed and Ms. Wood discuss the broader picture of Virginia's segregation and, how, what happened back then, still impacts life today in our city and schools..
In the 1940s and 50s Senator Harry Byrd pulled together a collection of like-minded political officials who stood for low taxes and frugality, a pay-as-you-go style of fiscal conservative. The Byrd Organization, as they became known, was content to spend the bare minimum on education, healthcare and highways, Prof. Reed explained.
He said the group's policies also deliberately suppressed the electorate by upholding a requirement that to be given a vote, poll tax had to be paid for three consecutive years. Because of this, voter turn-out throughout the 1930s and 40s remained at a pitifully low rate of around 11 %.
Most significantly, The Byrd Organization opposed the desegregation of schools which fell comfortably in line with the views of Thomas Chambliss Williams, the ACPS superintendent at the time.
Senator Byrd issued a rallying cry to the southern states in 1956 to fight the segregation of schools.
He said, "If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.”
Amongst the policies of the Massive Resistance was to end compulsory school attendance allowing the Governor of Virginia the power to close any schools that moved to desegregate. Funds were cut for any school that voluntarily desegregated or even complied with a court order.
In addition, the introduction of school vouchers in 1959 allowed white families to use public funds to pay for private schools. The vouchers amounted to one third of private school tuition. In reality, some families took the vouchers and spent them at private schools that had desegregated.
These policies were effective in stalling desegregation for many years long after the Board vs Brown ruling of 1958.
Even moderate democrats including Armistead Boothe, the state senator from Alexandria who initially declared segregation as “counterproductive” and “irrational,” eventually bowed to political pressure from Senator Byrd and his supporters.
In Alexandria, views hardened against desegregation.
The City council remained committed to segregation and in June 1959 worked to remove the only member of the School Board who supported desegregation.
Ms. Wood remarked that a “lack of human decency” infiltrated the belief system during this period in our history which supported white supremacy.
Today, she said, we still divide our school system by neighborhoods and in our elementary schools we see demographic differences and levels of inequities because of this. In our high school, segregation is still evident in our more challenging classes such as AP and honor classes, which remain predominantly white.
She told how the STEM Academy at the Minnie Howard campus began as a highly diverse program but within a year or so, it became all white as the perception of it being like a private school within a public school emerged in our community and white families monopolized spaces.
When that was noticed, the team at the school realized it had to approach recruitment differently through an equity lens to ensure it did not become a segregated program.
“We have to think about the sense of entitlement that comes with some of our community members and how that sense of entitlement has bled into our future,” she said.
“We are here for all of us, we do work for all of us, all of our students and our community. But not just one group or another, everyone.”
In 1963, Superintendent John Albohm began his tenure and quickly dropped the petition system requirement for African American students who wanted to go to an all white school, transitioning to a system of neighborhood schools instead.
However, the residential segregation that did still exists in Alexandria, quickly became apparent as many schools remained almost all white or all black.
The Federal government began to notice this neighborhood school segregation and started to demand action be taken to address this.
In 1971, Albohm was already dealing with racial tensions in the high schools and proposed that TC Williams become the one single high school.
But it was the ongoing elementary segregation that concerned the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).
In July that year, a meeting was held between HEW officials and Albohm to discuss the issue.
Albohm, claiming all his political capital had been spent on his push to realign the high schools, pushed to delay but his appeal fell on deaf ears.
The officials gave ACPS until the end of the month to decide their path forward.
The superintendent was stuck between a rock and a hard place, said Prof Reed.
On one side was the Alexandria political elite that included future president Gerald Ford and Hugo Black, the Supreme Court judge who both opposed desegregation and on the other, the increasingly impatient Federal government.
Around this time, Albohm was growing concerned by “white flight” as white families increasingly abandoned ACPS and student enrollment nose dived.
In response to the white exodus, a tracking system was created to try and appease white families who increasingly tied desegregation to a worsening quality of education.
The Talented and Gifted program was borne out of this period as was both the AP and Honors classes which still today are disproportionately overpopulated by white students. This did little but reinforce a two track system of education in our City -- one for whites and one for blacks that arguably exists to this day..
Ms. Wood said, “We know that people of color who succeed or fit into the dominant culture are exceptions to the norm, an exception to their race and the perceptions around their race. It meant that you must be stellar to be included just to be equal. However, on the contrary for our whote brothers and sisters success is the norm and to be expected.”