Athletics as a Problem and a Solution in Integrating Alexandria Public Schools
Athletics have always been a source of pride and tension running through the story of desegregating of Alexandria City Public Schools.
Sports rivalries were not the reason for the violent clashes in the schools and across the city in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but they often proved to be an outlet for long-felt frustrations. Moreover, these rivalries that frequently spilled over onto the athletic fields had an impact on the direction that the city ultimately took on its path toward desegregation.
Although the federal government was pushing Alexandria to focus on desegregating its elementary schools, the violent rivalries between students at Alexandria’s three high schools forced Superintendent John C. Albohm to focus there and elementary desegregation was pushed to a later time.
In 1969, Alexandria marked ten years since nine African American children crossed a police line to attend a previously all-white school. But instead of bringing an end to racial tensions, the event marked the beginning of an era of racial violence and protest.
With three rival high schools in Alexandria—Frances C. Hammond, George Washington, and the new T.C. Williams—violence often spilled onto the athletics fields. After a 14-year old African American student was beaten by a white police officer in 1969, a football game between Hammond and George Washington high schools produced rocks and firebombs being thrown by both sides. Eight months later an African American T.C. junior was shot and killed by a white storekeeper at a 7-Eleven and violence erupted again on the high schools’ athletic fields. Violence following basketball games at George Washington High School earned the school an official warning by the Virginia High School League, which tarnished the reputation of Alexandria schools as a whole. The continuing issues at football games that season were so severe that all Friday night games were moved to afternoons.
By May 1971, Superintendent John Albohm was deeply involved with the African American community’s concerns about being relegated to declining schools and about the intensity of racial tensions and protests, but he was confident that the new integrated T.C. Williams High School would reduce rivalries and foster greater cohesion within the community.
He had developed a grade level plan called 6-2-2-2. The basis of the plan was that each school would teach limited grades and all students (of all races) in the designated grades would attend the school that was teaching that grade level. Six grades in elementary school (1-6), two in junior high (7/8), two at high schools for 9/10 grades (Hammond and GW High Schools), two at T.C. Williams (11/12). So it was a desegregation plan in camouflage and there would be no declining schools.
But Albohm’s overriding need to integrate the schools came from a different source entirely. By 1971 the federal government was demanding that Alexandria fully integrate at least four grade levels in Alexandria City Public Schools or face losing federal funding and having a plan imposed on them.
Melvin Miller, an African American lawyer who lived in the community behind the new T.C. Williams High School, reminded Albohm that “all deliberate speed” was no longer an acceptable excuse. If the Board did not act, the federal government would impose its own plan on ACPS within 30 to 60 days.
To implement his 6-2-2-2 grade plan and unite all Alexandria students into one fully integrated school system, Superintendent Albohm needed the support of the School Board.
The Board did not support the plan initially. On May 19, 1971, former mayor Marshall Beverley, who was a cousin of Harry F. Byrd and ally of many conservative Board members, questioned the necessity for the entire desegregation enterprise. “There is nothing that has come before me that says that the school system is not in compliance at this time,” he said.
Superintendent Albohm used the lure of athletics and the potential for Alexandria to produce unbeatable athletic teams as a key argument to win the Board’s support.
“If this plan is approved, juniors and seniors throughout this city will be blended into one great high school whose entire sports program will be second to none in Northern Virginia and comparable to the best in this state,” Director of Athletics William Blair told the School Board in spring 1971.
That summer the plan was presented, debated and passed. By fall, T.C. Williams was fully integrated for grades 11 and 12. The subsequent success that fall of the T.C. Williams football team in the Virginia state championship made reorganization of the school system easier for all to accept. Appointing an interracial coaching team in the form of Head Coach Herman Boone and Assistant Coach Bill Yoast came with its own tensions but fostered an atmosphere of racial respect on the team. The Gettysburg pre-season training camp strengthened it, and at T.C. Williams, members of the football team patrolled the hallways wearing team jerseys to help minimize conflict at the school.
John Stubbins, director of secondary education told the Washington Post:
“It’s pretty obvious there’s been a tremendous spillover into the entire system because of that team. The parents were thrilled to death to see these kids getting along and it’s really helped. A lot of minds have been changed at the dinner table.”
What we don’t see in Disney’s version of the story, Remember the Titans, is that while T.C. Williams High School was relatively free of clashes in September 1971, Frances C. Hammond and George Washington High Schools, both serving ninth and tenth grade students, continued to see fights and conflicts between students making their voices heard. While the conflicts experienced within the integration struggles in Alexandria may have been played out on the athletic fields, they did not start there and certainly did not end with the T.C. state championship win.
The focus on resolving violence at the high school level had yet another impact, in that desegregation of the elementary schools had barely begun. We tend to think of the story of T.C. Williams as the whole story of Alexandria’s integration. But at the end of 1971, when the T.C. Williams held the State Championship cup high, Alexandria’s elementary schools were almost as segregated as they always had been.