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50 Years After Doors Opened

County marks 50th anniversary of Supreme Court decision ending segregation.

Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools must integrate. This month, county libraries and government celebrate the 50th anniversary of that ruling, but only the 45th anniversary of integrated Arlington schools.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Brown v. Board of Education that public school systems in Kansas, and across America, could not operate schools for black students separate from those for white students. Next Tuesday, a panel discussion at the library, including the first black students to integrate Arlington schools, will discuss the local reaction to “Brown v. Board of Ed.”

On May 17, the 50th anniversary of the decision, school Superintendent Robert Smith will join Wilson, Arlington NAACP president Talmadge Williams and other local leaders in unveiling a historic marker at the site of Stratford High School, the first integrated Arlington public school. Later that day, the NAACP and the county will sponsor a celebration of the Supreme Court decision at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theater.

“We’re really trying to bring to the minds of people how important [the decision] is,” said Williams. “It’s an opportunity to tell little children how important it was. They don’t know how difficult it was.”

<b>THE BROWN DECISION,</b> which led to the integration of school systems across the country, was part of a process that continues today in Arlington, said school board Chair Frank Wilson (D). “We’re not there yet,” he said, pointing to differences on standardized test scores between white and black students in Arlington and nationwide. County school officials have made closing that gap a priority during the budget for the last three years.

But there is also an education gap about how integration progressed 50 years ago. “If you go to schools and talk to youngsters today, many don’t have the slightest idea what happened 50, or 40 years ago in Virginia,” he said. “Local history probably hasn’t been captured way it should have been.”

<b>IN 1954,</b> Arlington’s school board voted to begin integration of county schools, but that move was cut short by a declaration of “Massive Resistance” to integration by the state political machine, then led by U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd.

The county school board tried to integrate schools anyway beginning with the 1956 school year. That move ended when the Assembly voted to disband the elected school board and replace it with a panel appointed by state officials. Under that appointed board, integration in Arlington schools was delayed until February 1959, when the first black students were admitted to the previously white-only Stratford High School in North Arlington (now home to the H-B Woodlawn Secondary School Program).

<b>ON THE NIGHT</b> of May 17 this year, the NAACP will join the county and the schools in commemorating the Brown decision, and telling the story of that case and its impact on Arlington.

It’s worth remembering, said Williams. “We did not have any violence, and I think we can attribute that to the good leadership here,” he said.

Arlington led the state that day, said Wilson. “I believe we were, by maybe a few minutes, the first public school integrated in the state of Virginia,” said Wilson.

Even that was not real integration, he said: Stratford was the only integrated school in the county for more than a decade, until full desegregation in the 1970s. Still, the desegregation of Stratford was “extremely important,” even if largely symbolic, said Wilson

That makes the moment worth remembering, Williams said. “We just want to make sure there’s a marker there. We want to make certain that we mark our spot and say, ‘Hey! We were here!’”