Fairfax's Long Road to Integration

Fairfax's Long Road to Integration

Fairfax Museum looks at desegregation within Fairfax County Public Schools while commemorating history of Brown v. Board of Education.

Emanuel Calloway's memories of Luther Porter Jackson High School are pleasant. Students were neatly dressed, the athletic teams and extracurricular activities were strong, and principal Taylor M. Williams had great plans for the school. Calloway hoped the skills he learned in his brick masonry and carpentry classes would help him build his house one day.

"Fun memories. Everyone respected everyone," Calloway said.

And although Calloway may have graduated a year before his alma mater became an integrated middle school, that didn't stop him from wishing the school well.

"As long as it wasn't going to be torn down, it was OK," said Calloway, who attended Luther Porter Jackson High School for black students from 1959-64. The Manassas resident now serves as the school's building engineer, a position he has occupied for seven years. "We would have to join hands anyway. We're one nation."

Calloway is featured in an exhibition at the Fairfax Museum and Visitors Center that will be on display until May. The museum is located at 10209 Main St. in Fairfax City. The exhibition and a Feb. 22 talk on desegregation in Fairfax County Public Schools were two activities hosted by the museum that honored the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark decision by the Supreme Court that called for the integration of the nation's schools.

In both presentations, historians found that while integration of the county's schools was peaceful, it followed the state's passive resistance toward desegregation. Although the Supreme Court gave its decision in 1954, integration in Fairfax County didn't occur for another 10 years.

"It's prompted people who have been in the Fairfax area for a couple of years to think about their experience at that time," said Fairfax Museum curator Susan Gray of the exhibition titled "Lifted Barriers: School Desegregation in Fairfax County 1954-1965."

"It's also prompted people not from the area to talk about their own experience of desegregation in other school systems," Gray said.

Megan Garnett, a history teacher at Robinson Secondary in Fairfax, explained that the reluctance of Fairfax County Public Schools to integrate had much to do with lawsuits and state funding.

"There truly was an element of fear in the state," Garnett said. "The fear was not only racial tensions but losing state funding."

Garnett researched desegregation of Fairfax County Public Schools while working on her master's degree at George Mason University. That research also served as material for her talk at the Fairfax Museum, which took place on George Washington's birthday.

She began by looking at the Supreme Court ruling in 1954 to integrate schools. Although the case is more commonly known as "Oliver L. Brown et al v. The Board of Education of Topeka," the case included several lawsuits from outside Kansas. The cases came from Delaware; South Carolina; Washington, D.C.; and Prince Edward County in Virginia.

Just prior to the Supreme Court's unanimous decision banning segregated school systems, Fairfax County had 23,315 students in its public schools. Seven percent of those students were black. While there were schools for black children up to eighth grade, high-school-age students had to travel to Manassas or Washington, D.C., to go to high school or trade school.

In 1954, the county opened its brand-new school for black high-school students, Luther Porter Jackson High School on Gallows Road in Merrifield. The school was named for a prominent Virginian historian and educator.

When the Supreme Court gave its verdict, then state attorney general for Virginia J. Lindsay Almond Jr. was quoted as saying that he didn't agree with the decision, in principle or in law. That reluctance in turn influenced how county school districts would respond to the Supreme Court ruling.

Virginia "did not want any part of this decision. The tone was set that they would not integrate until forced to do so," Garnett said.

WHILE THE federal government intervened with the integration of school districts in the South, Virginia needed no federal intervention to keep violence and backlash in check.

In some areas, police and military troops were necessary to ensure the integration of some schools. In September 1957, for instance, nine black students had to be escorted by the U.S. Army to enter Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in order for them to be protected from an angry mob of hundreds.

Despite the peace in Virginia, school districts moved slowly to integrate. Prince Edward County closed its schools for five years. Arlington County was the first school system in the state to attempt integration, but the state rejected its integration plans and fired the School Board.

In Fairfax County in August 1959, the Fairfax County School Board, under pressure of lawsuits, presented a desegregation plan that wouldn't achieve full integration until 1971. Because that plan would take too long, the county began integration in 1960 with the establishment of a pupil placement board. Under that board, students could apply to be a student at another school, provided they had a high scholastic aptitude, there was room at the other school, and there would not be an adverse effect on students. The applicant also had to demonstrate why he or she wanted to be placed at another school.

Soon afterward, 108 black students transferred to other schools, although critics observed that the placement restrictions applied only to black students.

"There were no guidelines as to what was an acceptable reason," Garnett said.

Besides the threat of lawsuits, grass-roots efforts from PTAs and women's groups helped bring about integration, which didn't fully permeate the school system until the 1966-67 school year, 12 years after the Supreme Court ruling. In 1965, the School Board outlined plans to end two school systems for the two races. That year also marked the first school year that Luther Porter Jackson High School was integrated and became a middle school.

WHAT SURPRISED Garnett in her research was that although the Fairfax County school system built new schools because the population had quadrupled in size from 1954 to 1970, it failed to devise integration plans at the same time. Garnett also noted that the school system's annual reports, as well as area newspapers, made only brief mentions of integration throughout that time period.

"Virginia really stayed under the radar. They didn't do anything incredibly outlandish in either direction," Garnett said.

With the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Fairfax Museum wanted to do something that not only celebrated Black Heritage Month but also focused on how the surrounding area responded to the Supreme Court ruling. Although the exhibition is about desegregation countywide, it uses the integration of Luther Jackson as an example.

"People have responded very positively to the information contained in the exhibition and the whole idea that we're doing something on the subject," Gray said. "What struck me was that the same year that separate and equal was ruled unconstitutional was the first year they opened Luther Jackson."

What adds value to the exhibition is that many of those who had gone through the integration of Fairfax County Public Schools are still living and relatively young. Although Calloway hadn't seen the exhibition yet, he was grateful for the attention that the school had received. His sisters attended Luther Jackson, as did his grandchildren.

He even sees his former classmates and teachers, who come back for reunions every five years. The former students — now lawyers, doctors, flight attendants and teachers — give him their business cards.

"When they come back, I'm here," Calloway said.