What Does it Mean for Alexandria Today?
This year marks the 65th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools is unconstitutional.
Many of us know the story of Remember the Titans. But the true story of desegregating Alexandria City Public Schools is darker and more complex than the sanitized story presented by Disney. While we celebrate diversity today, it took federal legislation, political unrest, violent protests, changing the composition of Alexandria’s School Board and City Council, and a new superintendent of schools to get to what looked like full integration, but even then was not fully integrated in practice. It would be twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education before a full integration plan was in place in Alexandria. Some of the issues the city faced then are still relevant today.
The Old Guard resists
The 1954 federal court decision ordering Alexandria City Public Schools to comply with Brown v. Board of Education was a direct challenge to the local political situation. Alexandria’s mayor from 1952 to 1955 was Marshall J. Beverly, a cousin of U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. who in 1956 led the campaign known as Massive Resistance, a statewide program of local defiance to federal desegregation orders. Alexandria State Delegate James M. Thomson was Bird’s brother-in-law. Aligned with them was Superintendent Thomas Chambliss (T.C.) Williams and a conservative School Board, which at that time was appointed by the City Council.
Resistance to desegregation was so strong across Virginia that in many localities schools closed down rather than comply. In Alexandria, local officials used threats of state-imposed punishment and closure to argue for an indefinite delay of desegregation. The court’s ruling went unchallenged for four years, until the NAACP brought a lawsuit against Virginia school systems that were resisting integration.
In the summer of 1958, 14 African American students sought transfers to white schools. In October, two days before the Alexandria desegregation suit was due to begin, the School Board announced six criteria on which to evaluate transfers. While none of these was based on race, collectively they allowed the Board to deny all 14 applicants. In one case an African American girl performed above her peers at the white school, and the Board ruled:
“This girl, if admitted to the sixth grade of either Patrick Henry or William Ramsay School, will be the only pupil of her race. This will be a novel situation. Such a situation will constitute a disruption of established social and psychological relationships between pupils in our schools as they have previously operated.”
But using the Board’s own criteria, the federal District Court ruled that nine of the students must be admitted to all-white schools.
The following year, the City Council voted to remove Herman G. Moeller, the only School Board member who had supported desegregation. The Board continued to resist transfer of African American students to all-white schools as far as it possibly could. It was a policy of containment.
So what changed?
In January 1963, the School Board appointed John Albohm to replace the retiring Superintendent Thomas C. Williams. Within five weeks of starting with ACPS, Albohm announced a plan to fully desegregate, and he moved 63 students to different schools. The Board immediately put forward multiple unsuccessful motions to get him fired.
But Albohm had to find compensations to make desegregation work. He tackled criticism that his efforts to address the needs of African American students were taking away from other groups. He introduced an honors programs, primarily to stop white flight. He addressed the needs of children living in poverty, so that they could succeed if transferred to an integrated school. These concepts were new and challenging then, but have had a lasting impact.
Alexandria’s middle-class African American population seized the moment and began to insist on better housing, education conditions and a political voice. In the summer of 1964, Ferdinand T. Day was appointed to the School Board. Day would become the first African American to be elected chair of a public school board in Virginia.
A New School and Climate
In his book, Building the Federal Schoolhouse, Georgetown professor Doug Reed wrote:
“The turmoil of American society was worked out in America’s classrooms with many white families confronting poverty and racial conflict within ‘their’ classrooms for the first time.”
In 1969, a 14-year old student was beaten by a white police officer and a group of African Americans marched to City Council demanding the officer’s dismissal. This ignited a period of civil unrest, with nightly firebombing.
In May 1970, eight months after the police beating and two weeks before a city council election, an African American high school junior named Robin Gibson walked into a 7-Eleven on the corner of Commonwealth and West Glebe and was shot by the white store manager. Six nights of riots and firebombs followed.
More than 1,500 people attended Gibson’s funeral. The store manager would be tried by a white judge and jury and serve just six months behind bars. But with the election just two days after the funeral, black voter turnout doubled and Alexandria elected its first African American City Council member, Ira Robinson.
Racial tension spilled over in the schools, with disputes about discipline and school quality where many parents perceived school policies as simply an effort to maintain racial hierarchies.
In November, some 20 white youths burned a cross in front of George Washington High School, which was 25 percent African American. Bathrooms were occupied, tarred and set afire. There were violent conflicts between students. When Superintendent Albohm tried to talk the students down, one said, “I’m tired of being told to go to my room.”
But Albohm was required by law to demonstrate the integration of four grades to continue to receive federal funding. He opted to unify the high schools.
In what was dubbed the 6-2-2-2 plan, each school would house limited grades and all students in the designated grades would attend whichever school 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 (Frances C. Hammond and George Washington High Schools), 2 at T.C. Williams (11/12). The plan integrated the needs of all students and eliminated the threat of schools declining due to the racial makeup of the student body.
While Albohm could not immediately instate the African American principals and leadership that the African American community wanted, he offered the chance to create a new school climate, and to anchor the experiences of all Alexandria’s students in one common and equal school system.
[Editor’s Note: The history depicted in this post is derived in great measure from “Building the Federal School House: Localism and the American Education State,” by Douglas Reed, published by Oxford University Press, 2014. The book goes into extensive detail about the evolution of the governance of public schools as local, state and federal bodies reconstructed the operation of schools in the U.S. using the City of Alexandria as a case study.]