At 8:15 a.m. on February 10, 1959, a gray and misty morning 60 years ago, nine African American school children walked across a line of 58 police officers into the all-white Theodore Ficklin Elementary School. The children had been selected to be part of an NAACP lawsuit against Virginia school systems that were resisting integration. Their actions began a long slow process to desegregate Alexandria City Public Schools that would take another 14 years to complete.
Those African American children disappeared into the school system and only handful of the nine have spoken about that day.
One of the requirements put in place by the School Board and Superintendent of Schools just a few weeks earlier was that any African American children requesting a transfer should be above average intelligence. James and Margaret Lomax were both exceptionally bright children. Margaret, then 6, would become valedictorian when she graduated and her brother James, 8, achieved all As and Bs throughout his education.
Their mother Ella Lomax just wanted her children to have a safer and shorter walk to school. The whites-only Theodore Ficklin School was only a block from their house, while Charles Houston, the school for African Americans, was a mile away. Their father had fought for democracy in the U.S. Army and Mrs. Lomax felt that her children were entitled to their share of democracy too.
These first students to break the racial barrier in Alexandria did not have an easy time. They were pelted with spitballs, tripped in hallways, had books knocked out of their hands. Some received low grades they didn’t deserve.
“They suffered the stares of classmates and the racial slurs shouted from passing cars,” according to former Alexandria teacher Mable Lyles. And there were other, more serious consequences.
Originally 14 children had been selected for the Civil Rights case, but not all made it. Pearl and Theodosia Hundley’s mother, Blois, wanted them to learn a foreign language and felt that the Ficklin school offered better educational opportunities. She was at a PTA meeting at the all-black Parker-Gray School when parents were asked if anyone wanted to have their children attend the white schools and would join the NAACP lawsuit.
But the Hundley children weren’t able to join the nine because their mother, a cook at Lyles-Crouch Elementary School, was fired by Superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams.
“We couldn’t very well continue to employ her after such a slap in the face. If we had continued, it would have been condoning her action. Her race had nothing to do with it. If she had been green it would have been the same thing,” Superintendent T.C. Williams told the Board.
Even though Mrs. Hundley was later reinstated, she pulled Pearl and Theodosia out of the school system and moved into Washington D.C.
Elementary schools in the back seat
Despite the courageous action of the nine, by 1971, more than 12 years later, little had changed. New elementary schools opened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but many were still segregated in practice due to their location in segregated neighborhoods. Desegregation was clearly needed in the elementary schools, but there was too much racial conflict in the high schools to ignore the issues there.
Superintendent Albohm believed that fully integrating elementary schools when racially motivated violence was occurring at the high school level would cause white families to pull their children out of ACPS and even move out of the area. He felt full-scale desegregation would have been too much for the city all at one time.
School Board members tried to dodge the issue entirely by claiming that because three new members had recently joined, they could not make such an important decision. In reality, Albohm, the administration and the Board were preserving the vestiges of Alexandria’s old segregated school system.
The Row over Busing
In 1972, the federal government’s Civil Rights director, J. Stanley Pottinger, phoned Albohm to ask about the status of elementary school desegregation. That phone call resulted in an agreement that no elementary school would have more than 50 percent black enrollment. At the time, some schools were as much as 95 percent African American. Resolving this would involve busing students around the city.
News that ACPS elementary schools were in fact about to be desegregated brought a large crowd that did not want the change to the March 1972 Board meeting. The George Mason PTA President stated that 95 percent of its members were opposed to busing. He described the school as equivalent to a church, “the center of neighborhood activities.” In the face of dissent, Albohm relented. He said he would not bus students across the city.
This decision emboldened the City Council, which at that time appointed School Board members, to flex its political muscle by replacing liberal members who had supported elementary school desegregation with conservatives. In June 1972,
School Board Chair Ferdinand T. Day, the first African American School Board member, stepped down and the new Board was stacked with opponents of busing. Katrina Ross, the sole African American left on the School Board, resigned in protest at what she described as a reversion to the 1950s and alienation of the African American community. She called on black Alexandrians to boycott the selection process for her replacement.
A Solution in Pairing Schools
A month later, Superintendent Albohm presented seven integration plans to the Board, including one that involved busing both white and black children to cross-town paired schools. A predominantly white school would be paired with a predominantly African American school. Students would do some grades at one school and others at the other. The solution meant that neither white nor African American students bore the brunt of busing. Both shared it equally.
With this—14 years after the first black students entered an all-white school—the political forces within Alexandria that had initially sought to fight desegregation and then to contain integration were defeated.