Crossing The Divide
The desegregation of Stratford Junior High wasn’t a finish line in the march for civil rights. But it was a critical milestone.
Stratford Junior High, 1965. Photo courtesy of Center for Local History, Arlington County Public Library
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Ronald Deskins remembers feeling nervous on that cold February morning in 1959. He was 12, and about to start his first day at a new school.
“Class had already started,” says Deskins, now 66, a retired firefighter living in Mount Jackson, Va. “You walk in and there’s a whole classroom full of kids and everyone is looking at you.”
Any kid would feel anxious about switching schools midyear. Still, Deskins wasn’t just any kid. He was one of the first four black students to attend Stratford Junior High School (now the site of H-B Woodlawn) in Arlington. And Stratford was the first public secondary school in the state of Virginia to integrate its student body.
Although Deskins and his classmates were emblematic of a new era, much of the groundwork for that historic day was laid before they were born.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Arlington County saw an influx of new residents—many of them educated, progressive northerners—who were looking for jobs during the Depression and, later, to support the war effort. Filled with ideas, they found their way into leadership positions. Eventually, a group of citizens formed Arlingtonians for a Better County (ABC) and secured the state’s first elected school board.
“A lot of people came from places with good schools and they were interested in working for good schools,” says Martha Ann Miller, a former home economics teacher at Stratford Junior High, who was active in the better schools movement. Now 102, she lives in Virginia Square.
At first, Arlington’s elected school board oversaw separate schools for black and white students, but the schools were far from equal. The African-American schools—which included Hoffman-Boston Elementary, Drew Elementary, Kemper Elementary, Langston Elementary and Hoffman-Boston Junior-Senior High—often had fewer class choices and after-school activities. And they were forced to make do with secondhand books and supplies.
As a result, many African-American families saw D.C. schools as the smarter option for their children in the ’40s. Elmer L.H. Lowe Sr., the current president of the Arlington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), recalls how black students would give fake Washington addresses so they could attend schools in the District.
“At that time, the D.C. schools were better schools,” says Lowe, 75, who grew up in Nauck and now lives in Arlington View. “[The students] would go to their D.C. address, stay until it was dark, and then come back into Arlington.”
But few saw this as a long-term solution. In 1950, Constance Carter, a student at Hoffman-Boston High, alleged in a lawsuit that the county “refused certain courses and educational advantages afforded to white students at Washington-Lee, but not given to colored students at Hoffman-Boston.” A U.S. District Court judge disagreed, ruling that the educational advantages were equivalent at both schools.
That decision would become obsolete four years later when the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional because “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Looking back, Lowe can appreciate that hard-fought victory and all that it stood for. Although he has lived in Arlington for his entire life (with the exception of military service), he wasn’t born within county lines. Few African-Americans of his generation were.
Arlington Hospital (now Virginia Hospital Center), which began as a women’s service project in 1933 and grew into a 100-bed facility by 1944, provided select medical services to black patients, but refused to admit black mothers to its maternity ward. African-American women who were in labor had to travel to D.C. or Alexandria to have their babies.
“If a lady came in an emergency, [hospital workers] couldn’t stop the baby from coming,” Lowe says. “But after it was born, they would wrap it up and take it in an ambulance to D.C.”
Similar laws banned African-Americans from dining at local restaurants, allowing them only to purchase carryout from the back or side door of the kitchen. (Lowe remembers following this protocol to get takeout from Bob & Edith’s Diner on Columbia Pike.)
As in other parts of the South, white movie theaters were also off limits, and black residents were banished to the backs of public buses.
“I don’t remember going to a restaurant in Virginia as a child,” Deskins says, “other than a couple of black-owned establishments in our neighborhood, which are no longer there.We went to Washington, D.C., for movies, swimming, hospitals and the occasional [dinner out].”
Arlington’s neighborhoods were also segregated, with much of the African-American population concentrated in three areas—Green Valley (now Nauck), Johnson’s Hill (now Arlington View) and portions of High View Park-Hall’s Hill—which were largely neglected when it came to public works.
In the ’30s and ’40s, many of the streets in Hall’s Hill were unpaved and lacked streetlights, gutters and sidewalks, according to oral histories maintained by the county.
In some cases, the dividing lines were even more literal. Hall’s Hill was physically separated from the adjacent white neighborhood of Waycroft-Woodlawn by a 7-foot cement wall that ran behind the backyards of homes on the north side of 17th Street from North Culpeper Street to North Edison Street. Parts of the wall’s crumbled foundation still exist today.
“There were no [connecting] streets through [the two neighborhoods],” says Michael Jones, who grew up in Hall’s Hill and, with Deskins, was one of the first black students to attend Stratford. “It was mostly an annoyance and to let you know where you stood in the area.”
Other neighborhoods relied on codes—instead of walls—to keep African-Americans out. Bellevue Forest’s covenant, which expired in 1965, stipulated that owners could not sell or rent to “negros, or any person or persons of negro blood or extraction, or to any person of the semetic [sic] race, blood, or origin…,” according to the Arlington County Civic Federation’s website.
Jones, 66, a retired CIA officer who now lives in Sterling, says that back then, his most memorable interactions with Caucasian families occurred when he was in disguise, on Halloween. “We would go trick or treating [in the white neighborhoods] because they had more candy,” he says. “Nobody knew who we were under the costumes.”
Despite Jim Crow’s lingering presence in Arlington, many community members supported school desegregation. In January 1956, the Arlington School Board—acting on the assumption that the state would allow localities to determine their own positions on racial matters—announced that integration would begin in select county schools over the next two years.
State leaders responded by revoking Arlington’s right to an elected school board. At that point, the Arlington County Board took over the schools, appointing conservatives such as auto dealer Bob Peck and educator Helen Lane to a newly created school board, which overturned the former board’s motion to desegregate.