They were on the front lines when Alexandria schools were desegregated — teachers and students who are today's living testament to history.
Last Saturday afternoon nearly 160 came together again at the Nannie J. Lee Center to hold their first community event under the banner of the newly formed Alexandria Old School Alumni Association. Former teachers, students and principals of Alexandria's once segregated schools — Charles Houston, Parker Gray and Lyles-Crouch — shared remembrances, laughs and affection.
Established last May, the new alumni association decided that the first major event should be "A Salute to Our Teachers: Honoring the Bridges Who Brought Us Across." Twenty-five of those teachers were on hand to be honored by their former students.
"The theme came from what and how we were taught in school. We listened to our teachers the same as our parents in those days," said Myra Addison, a member of the association's executive committee and one of the prime organizers of the event. "Our theme is to give tribute to those African-American teachers who taught in the segregated schools."
GWEN BROWN BEATTY, association president, explained, "It all started from a party. I decided I wanted to get people from all over the area who had attended Alexandria's segregated schools and had such great teachers. Everyone enjoyed themselves so much they wanted to continue it, so we formed the association."
Leroy Baker, another executive committee member and a survey technician with Alexandria's Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said, "We all grew up together, so we all got together to honor our teachers. We also got tired of meeting at funerals."
Although the Supreme Court decision calling for integrated schools nationwide, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, was handed down in May 1954, many schools remained segregated into the 1960s. Alexandria schools were integrated in the early years of that decade, according to Addison.
"I believe Jefferson Junior High School was first, followed by Filkin Elementary and then George Washington High School," she recalled. T.C. Williams was built in the '60s and graduated its first class in 1967.
EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE member and native Alexandrian Windy Ford Hopkins was a member of that first graduating class. "I attended Parker-Gray for grades eight, nine and 10 and then was transferred to T.C. under the integration plan," she said.
"This association is community-based. Its mission is to reach out to the community in a variety of ways and to serve as mentors to today's youth," Addison explained. It presently has approximately 300 members composed of students who attended segregated Alexandria public schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The highlight of the afternoon was the presentation of the first Foundation Award. "It is to recognize a teacher who helped students establish both a solid academic foundation and to become solid citizens," said executive committee member the Rev. Charles Hall, the presenter and featured speaker.
Alfred Carter, a former longtime teacher and coach at Parker-Gray and later at George Washington High School, was the surprise recipient of the award. Hall remembered him as "my high school football coach as well as my teacher. He had a lasting impact on my life."
In accepting the recognition, Carter said, "I was always glad to be teaching. Every day was a good day for me because I was having fun." He commenced his teaching career at Parker-Gray immediately on graduation from Virginia State University at Petersburg, Va., in 1952. He retired in 1991 as chairman of the Physical Education Department at George Washington High School.
"Of all the teachers, I was very surprised and honored to have been chosen as the first recipient of this award," he said. "I wasn't even sure I was supposed to attend until the preceding Monday, because my invitation got lost in the mail."
In addition to heading up the Physical Education Department, Carter, who resides in the Bren Mar Park area, also taught biology for eight years of his career, coached both football and baseball, and served as assistant track coach.
OTHERS RECOGNIZED WITH special awards were Ardelia Hunter, Christine Howard and Natalie Vaughn, former teachers and principals at various schools of that era. Hunter and Howard also assisted in getting the association organized, according to Addison.
"It was a wonderful experience to be recognized by such great students after more than 20 years," Howard stated. "When Cecil Laws said that I changed his life, that is the ultimate gift anyone can give a teacher."
Howard, who taught seventh grade at Charles Houston, also served as vice principal at Douglas MacArthur and as principal at Jefferson-Houston during her 20-year career. "When the schools were integrated, I was transferred to the Prince Street School, then to Minnie Howard, and next to Theodore Filkin," she remembered.
"Parents were very supportive in those days. If a child got out of line, the only thing we had to do was pick up the phone and call them. Parents not only supported the teachers but education in general," Howard emphasized.
"We all wanted to give the students the backgrounds and goals they needed to succeed. And they have all gone out and done such great things," she enthused. For her efforts the association presented her and the others with a crystal bowl and a certificate of recognition.
Vaughn, whose career spanned 32 years, served as both principal and assistant principal in various locations throughout the city's school system, eventually retiring from Lyles-Crouch, she noted.
"Although I never taught, I was always in administration. The kids all knew me because I never closed my door. They could come to me," she explained. A native Alexandrian, with a master’s degree from New York University, the 82-year-old Vaughn served as assistant principal at Charles Houston and principal at Robert E. Lee.
Making the presentations of the awards to Howard and Vaughn [Hunter was not present] were Charles Sias and Thelma Boyd Singletary. Linda Reed Howard gave a history of the schools. Callie Love Terrell and Becky Thomas Mays offered musical selections.
Joining Beatty, Addison, Baker and Hall in the leadership of the association are Jeanette Rice Lightfoot, vice president; Priscilla Robinson Collier, treasurer; and executive committee members Linda Reed Howard, Thelma Boyd Singletary and Ted Smith.