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.
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-Halls Hill—which were largely neglected when it came to public works.
In the ’30s and ’40s, many of the streets in Halls 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 Halls 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.
A newspaper story later that year quoted Lane—a former teacher at Marymount Junior College (today Marymount University)—as stating that, “for the good of colored people, there should be continued segregation in Virginia.”
“Mrs. Lane was very conservative,” Arlington resident Elizabeth Campbell would later recall in a 1984 interview for the Arlington County Library’s Oral History Project. “She looked for communists in the classroom, went to the school libraries, took books off the shelves, read excerpts from them and asked that they be taken from the shelves. [She] gave teachers a very, very hard time…”
This jockeying was only the beginning of what would become a protracted fight for educational equality. On May 17, 1956 (the second anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education), NAACP attorneys filed a suit on behalf of 13 local parents and 21 students—including two white parents and three white students—to end school segregation in Arlington.
After similar suits were filed in three other counties, the Virginia General Assembly adopted a policy of “Massive Resistance” to oppose desegregation. This sweeping measure, conceived by then-Gov. Thomas B. Stanley (and adopted in many other states), granted the state of Virginia certain authorities—among them, the ability to shut down any school that was integrated (though the governor could take over a school and reopen it on a segregated basis); to withhold state funds from jurisdictions that desegregated their schools; and to provide tuition grants to white students should their public schools be “adversely” impacted by integration.
The state also maintained strict oversight of decisions regarding individual pupil placement—a red-tape strategy that effectively blocked African American students from gaining entrance to white schools.
In September 1957, seven black children were denied admission to four Arlington junior and senior high schools, on the grounds that they had not acquired the necessary approval through the state’s pupil placement board. Later that month, federal courts ruled that the Pupil Placement Act could not prohibit these students from attending white schools. But another year of legal maneuvering followed.
In September 1958, federal courts ordered the desegregation of schools in Arlington and three other Virginia school systems. In an act of defiance, Virginia’s newly elected Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. promptly shut down the schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville and Front Royal, leaving Arlington’s schools open, but stuck between conflicting state and federal laws.
At the time, 30 black children had applied to the state’s pupil placement board to attend segregated white schools in Arlington at the start of the 1958-’59 school year. U.S. District Court Judge Albert V. Bryan subsequently ruled that Arlington must admit four of them—Deskins, Jones, Gloria Thompson and Lance Newman—to Stratford Junior High School. (Of the other 26 student applicants, one dropped out; the rest were denied admission based on criteria set by the pupil placement board, including attendance area, overcrowding at Washington-Lee, academic achievement, psychological problems and what the state called “adaptability.”)
“You can imagine the surprise, anger, disappointment, and tears as IQs and other confidential information regarding the students were released by school board lawyers,” Hall’s Hill resident Dorothy Hamm would later write in her memoir, My Story—The Integration of Arlington Public Schools. (Hamm, who was of Cherokee and African American descent, died in 2004.)
In January 1959, both the Virginia Supreme Court and a federal court declared Massive Resistance measures unconstitutional, negating the state’s argument for “separate but equal” schools. That set the stage for Deskins, Jones, Thompson and Newman to join the student body at Stratford Junior High one month later.
Built in 1950, Stratford Junior High had been the first school established in a wave of educational investments after Arlington County elected its first school board. A story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch described the school as a “modern, yellow-brick-and-stone-building located on a gentle slope in an upper-middle-class neighborhood.” (Ironically, the school that would take center stage in the quest for civil rights was named after the birthplace of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County.)
“We’d drive past Stratford and I would say, ‘I want to go to that school’ because it was big and looked pretty,” says Deskins, whose family lived in Hall’s Hill.
But his mother had her eye on the school for academic reasons. “Why should we have to go on a bus and ride over to Washington?” Peggy Deskins said in a 2003 interview for Marymount University’s Oral History Project. “I certainly wasn’t going to send him to Hoffman-Boston.”
In Stratford, the Deskins family saw a chance to give their son the same opportunity as any other kid growing up in Arlington. “My parents and grandparents believed that education was the foundation for any positive change and knew that there was quite a difference in the educational opportunities at the white schools versus the black schools,” Deskins says.
Though the school had its share of progressive educators, some faculty members had their reservations about desegregation. In a preemptive move to avoid internal strife, Stratford Principal Claude Richmond took stock of his teachers and their positions.
“The principal asked the teachers whether they were willing to teach the black children,” says Miller, the former home ec teacher. “I thought that was an insult.”
From a pragmatic standpoint, though, Richmond and other school officials were hoping to avoid a scenario like Little Rock, Ark., where, in September 1957, federal troops had been brought in to escort nine children to class after their initial attempts to enter the building were blocked.
Arlington school officials already knew that tensions were high in the community. Though a July 1958 Washington Post poll found 75 percent of Stratford parents favoring integration (154 to 40) over the prospect of the school closing, the minority opposition was vocal. It included members of the American Nazi Party (then headquartered in Arlington), as well as the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, a group dedicated to preserving strict segregation in Virginia’s schools. Both groups distributed hate literature and threatened to picket. And they often disrupted school board meetings.
On Feb. 2, 1959, 85 policemen in full riot gear stood alongside nearly 1,000 reporters and waited for Stratford’s four newest students to arrive.
“[I]t looked like a small army around the school…to protect us and the school against any problems that [might] arise,” former Arlington school board member L. Lee Bean Jr. said in a 1987 interview with the Arlington County Library’s Oral History Project.
At 8:35 a.m., Deskins, Jones, Thompson and Newman walked across a large field and entered the back of the school next to the auditorium. “The four of us walked in together and, as I remember, reporters and everybody were lined up and down,” Jones says. “The media was focused on Stratford and what was happening in Virginia.”
Once assigned to their classes, they were split into pairs and matched with volunteer student guides. “It was good we didn’t have to be totally alone,” Deskins recalls.
Newspaper accounts on Feb. 3 used words such as “quiet” and “normal” to describe that first day, although former teacher Herb Ware, who had Newman and Deskins in his seventh-grade math class, recalls “a tension and iciness” among students. Between five and 10 plainclothes police officers maintained a presence inside the school for the first week.
The transition wasn’t completely smooth. Ware (who would later become principal of Barrett Elementary) recalls one outburst by a girl who had been sent to the principal’s office for disciplinary issues. “You’re nothing more than a god-damned n**** lover!” she screamed at Principal Richmond.
Deskins says he made a number of white friends, but was taunted daily by a group of boys who “made it their business” to pelt him with racial slurs. One day a fight broke out in gym class after another student deliberately tackled him as he was kicking a soccer ball.
Moreover, the students weren’t the only ones subject to harassment. Hamm, a noted civil rights activist whose son Edward Leslie Hamm Jr. had been one of the original plaintiffs in the 1956 NAACP lawsuit, received threatening phone calls at her home, and found a cross burning on the front lawn of her church. Her youngest son, Bernard (one of the black students to subsequently enroll at Stratford), arrived at school one day to find a drawing of a lynching on his desk.
Deskins also recalls a tense exchange between his father, Carroll—a firefighter who worked in the county’s only paid black fire department—and then-U.S. Rep. Joel Broyhill, a prominent housing developer and outspoken segregationist. Stopping by the Deskins’ home one day (back then it was customary for politicians to visit their constituents door-to-door), Broyhill suggested to Carroll that joining any integration lawsuits might put his job at the fire department in jeopardy.
“[My father] had a lot to lose [since] he had a very secure position,” Deskins explains. But he asked the congressman to leave—and kept his job.
Students, meanwhile, staged their own quiet acts of civil disobedience in the months and years that followed. Although Stratford had opened its doors to African Americans, many local businesses—including the Peoples Drug store on Lee Highway—had not. “A group of us would always walk in and sit there [at the lunch counter],” Deskins recalls. “The manager would come over and say, ‘I can’t let you sit here.’ As I recall, he was always somewhat apologetic for that.’ ”
By 1960, 42 black students were attending six Arlington schools (three elementary schools, two junior high schools and Washington-Lee High School). In April 1961, two more junior high schools—Swanson and Gunston—desegregated, bringing the total number of black students attending formerly white-only Arlington schools to 104.
Nevertheless, lawsuits continued as the county struggled to find balance in its integration policies. In 1965, a group of white parents opposed an attempt to combine Hoffman-Boston Junior-Senior High with Thomas Jefferson Junior High, on the grounds that their 14th Amendment rights would be violated if race was the driving factor behind the new school boundaries. The county ultimately won that fight, and, in 1966, the plan moved forward.
In 1969, responding to pressure from African American parents, Arlington County closed its last all-black school, Drew Elementary. Two years later, county officials announced plans to create a new school (Drew Model School, also named for the pioneering black medical researcher Charles Drew) in its place. However, to achieve racial diversity in the new school, the plan called for a select number of former Drew students to be bused to schools in other parts of the county. This measure faced immediate opposition from black residents, who worried that their children would suffer disproportionately if they had to travel farther than white children to get to school.
Lillian B. Green, a former secretary at Drew Elementary, was one of those concerned citizens. She questioned why her grandchildren were being separated from the friends they had grown up with in order to commute 45 minutes from South Arlington to Jamestown Elementary in North Arlington. She feared that the strain of the commute would exhaust the kids, making it harder for them to learn. The mandate, she argued, would place the same kind of burden on black students that Brown v. Board of Ed. had sought to remove.
“I would see these little children standing out there in the rain waiting for a bus—and in the snow—to carry them to school,” Green said in a 1991 interview with the Arlington County Library. “[They would] pass all of these schools in order to have it equal, you know.”
Nearly half a century later, some would argue that Arlington’s public schools are still racially and socioeconomically unbalanced. As of October 2012, only 5 percent of the students at Carlin Springs Elementary School were white, compared with Jamestown Elementary School, where 85 percent of students are white.
And those schools, while representing the extremes, are not anomalies—evidence, perhaps, that Arlington’s neighborhoods still remain somewhat segregated, even in the absence of masonry walls and racist neighborhood covenants. “My belief is that opportunities become equal when neighborhoods become equal,” says Ware, the former math teacher, who now lives in Vienna.
Deskins prefers to take the long view, remarking on how far the county, its schools and its citizenry have come. Today, he says, the anxiety he felt on his first day at Stratford has been replaced with admiration.
“When I look back on it, it has given me a lot of respect for my parents and other adults at that time,” he says. “There wasn’t so much pressure on me. I was a kid.”
A lifelong Virginian, freelance writer Les Shaver lives in Ballston. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Mary Washington.