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Learning Together

On 50th anniversary of decision ending segregation, Arlington celebrates 45 years since local schools began integration.

Five years passed before Virginia integrated. Almost five years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Arlington and other Virginia school systems were still segregated.

That changed in Arlington, on Feb. 2, 1959, when four students became the first black students in Virginia to attend Stratford Junior High School, a school that had previously admitted only white students. In a county named for the home of slaveowner Robert E. Lee, the school itself was named for Lee’s birthplace.

The county celebrated the May 17, 1954, decision in Brown with two events Monday: unveiling a historical marker outside Stratford (now home to the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program) at the hour that the Brown decision was read; and in the evening, “Footsteps Through Time,” a dramatic narrative at Thomas Jefferson Community Theater, tracing efforts to desegregate schools nationally and locally that led up to Brown.

The crowd outside Stratford school was a mix of black, white and brown, and the audience itself was a fitting memorial to Brown, said Talmadge Williams, president of the NAACP-Arlington branch.

“It is hard to imagine that just 50 years ago, a gathering like this would have gotten some of us shunned … and the others jailed, and even lynched.”

But the county is fortunate someone was willing to take the first step to end those years, the Rev. Leonard Hamlin, of Macedonia Baptist Church, said at the unveiling. “Fifty years ago, whether by mandate or voluntary, we took steps to bring the community together,” he said. “We are much better together than we are apart.”

<b>AT STRATFORD, CURRENT</b> Woodlawn students Mahala Mitchell and Austin Winger spoke for former Stratford students who came to school on Feb. 2, 1959. Working in the Swapping Stories project, Mitchell interviewed Larry Grove, a white, long-time Stratford student who told her what it was like when four new students came to his school.

“Personally, I didn’t care. But my mom did. She gave me advice: ‘Be calm and just go to class,’” Mitchell said, reading Grove’s words.

As Grove walked up Vacation Lane from Military Road, he told Mitchell, he saw a huge crowd in front of the school: “Soldiers, and news cameras.”

Inside the school, however, he found that it was “a pretty normal day. Afterwards, I thought, ‘Wow. Those kids must be pretty brave.’”

Walking to school that day, Michael Jones noticed the crowd. But the black student was coming to start his first day at Stratford, and he told current Woodlawn seventh grader Austin Winger that he knew the crowds were waiting for him.

“All kinds of people were standing outside, waiting to watch me go in,” Winger read. “The principal introduced us to the rest of the students, but they didn’t seem that interested in us.”

As he walked home, his thoughts echoed Grove’s.

“I gave myself a pat on the back,” Jones told Winger.

<b>LATER, AUDIENCE MEMBERS</b> at Jefferson Theatre heard what awaited Jones at the end of his walk home. Jeremy Kluttz, a Washington-Lee student, read more of Jones’s account of his first day at Stratford: “That afternoon, reporters, TV crews and nosy neighbors surrounded our houses. … You never know when you will make history.”

That history was years in the making. In the narrative “Footsteps Through Time: From Segregation to Integration,” writer Margaret Stephens-Reed, special projects coordinator for Arlington Public Schools, laid out the backdrop for the Brown decision, and the desegregation of Stratford Junior High.

Schools in Arlington were overcrowded after World War II, as county populations continued to explode: from 1932 to 1948, the population grew from 37,000 to 124,000, an increase of 235 percent. With segregation as the official policy of the state, crumbling back schools lagged behind even the county’s mediocre white schools.

The county got a shot in the arm in 1946, when the District of Columbia announced it would start charging tuition for students. Until then, Stephens-Reed wrote, “everybody knew if you wanted the best for your children, you enrolled them in schools in the District.”

But the tuition decision led to increased spending — on white schools. Arlington’s segregated black schools lacked equipment, and lacked money to refurbish the facilities. What the schools lacked, “the teachers made up for in dedication,” said Celestine Doles, a student from Hoffman-Boston, the county’s segregated black high school.

<b>IN 1947, ELECTED</b> School Board members in Arlington clashed with Board members appointed by the state as they began to agitate for integration.

That conflict led to a vote showing that public confidence rested with the elected, integrationist School Board.

But their efforts also touched off a fight at the state level that would eventually lead the Assembly to suspend Arlington’s ability to elect its own School Board.

It also came as the NAACP began a series of lawsuits to compel schools to integrate, lawsuits that ultimately led to the Brown decision. “In Arlington, the decision raised great hopes. This meant our children could finally attend the schools closest to our homes,” wrote Stephens-Reed, quoting black parent Dorothy Hamm.

But those hopes were stalled for one year, then two years, then four, as Virginia’s state government carried on its campaign of Massive Resistance to integration. Eventually, an all-white state commission proposed measures removing state funding from any Virginia school system that tried to integrate.

Arlington voters vetoed the measure, 10,000 to 8,000. Unfortunately, the rest of the state embraced the measure by a margin of two to one.

<b>FINALLY, ARLINGTON TOOK</b> steps to allow black students to enroll at segregated schools in early 1959. White Virginians attempted yet again to block that effort.

Gov. J. Lindsay Almond announced in a radio address that January that “We have not yet begun to fight.”

Later that month, however, Almond called together avid segregationists and told them the fight was over.

On Feb. 2, county officials stationed more than 50 policemen around Stratford. The school was integrated peacefully.

As the years rolled by, more and more black students were enrolled at previously segregated schools. But county civil rights leaders said that real integration didn’t take place until the 1970s.

Even then, it might not truly be called integration, School Board chair Frank Wilson said Monday afternoon, outside Stratford. “I’m not using the word integration. Integration is something that’s voluntary; desegregation is something that’s forced,” he said, and Arlington was desegregated.