Fifty years after the Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” wasn’t alright, students at T.C. Williams High School sought to find out how far we've come in terms of integrating schools and society?
National Public Radio visited T. C. Williams High School to discuss this with students, panelists and telephone callers from around the country on Monday. “Talk of the Nation” was broadcast live from the school’s mini auditorium.
“In the lobby of T., C. Williams High School, there are 80 flags representing the 80 countries of origin of the students here,” said the program’s host, Neal Conan, as the broadcast began. “We are here to look at the Supreme Court’s ruling and its impact.”
Ralph Eubanks was 12 years old when he was placed in a white classroom in a school in southern Mississippi. “It was difficult,” Eubanks said. “I graduated from an integrated school and then went to Ole Miss, just 12 years after Meredith. That was difficult, too, but, looking back, the longer I was there, the more I enjoyed my stay.”
Although Brown was decided in 1954, Eubanks’ experience happened in 1970. A. Melvin Miller, a long-time Alexandrian, remembers the day, 50 years ago, when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling.
“I was a law student at Howard University,” he said. “The attorneys who were arguing Brown practiced their arguments at the law school so we had heard at least that side of the case. A number of us went to the Court to hear the arguments and my roommate from Howard called me to remind me of the anniversary — as if I needed reminding.
“We expected Brown to change the world but became realistic when the justices ruled the Justice Department to come back with a plan. That let us know that things weren’t going to change immediately,” he said.
And they didn’t. Not for the country and not for Alexandria. Juvenile and Domestic Court judge Nolan Dawkins was six years old in 1954 and that fall, entered school at the all black Lyles-Crouch.
“I guess I became aware of Brown in around 1958 when I was about 10 years old,” he said. “We knew that there were a lot of elementary schools in Alexandria and we knew that there were some that had better facilities than others and we knew that we African-American students didn’t attend those schools,” he said.
Alexandria was a very segregated city then. “There were African-American neighborhoods and white neighborhoods and we didn’t much stray outside those boundaries,” Dawkins said.
IN 1963 though, that changed for Dawkins. He decided to attend the all white George Washington High School. “A couple of African-American kids had gone to GW in 1962 and talked to me about the differences,” Dawkins said. “Parker-Gray was a very good high school and offered some very good programs. Many of the kids who went there have done very well. However, I looked at the facilities and the programs that were offered at both Parker-Gray and GW and went to my parents and asked if I could attend GW.”
That was the era of choice. “If you were African-American, you had to go down to the School Board and apply to go to one of the white schools,” Dawkins said. “You essentially had to prove that you were worthy and could succeed. There was a belief among some of the system administrators that the African-American kids were less intelligent than the white kids and thus, less likely to succeed.”
Dawkins entered GW in 1963 and graduated in 1965. “I was treated OK,” he said. “I was an athlete and a musician so I joined things. That helped. However, after school I went to my neighborhood and the white kids went to theirs. I have one white friend from high school with whom I am still in touch. He came to my home and I went to his, but that was unusual.”
Ten years after Brown, there were still places in Alexandria and in Virginia where African-Americans could not go.
“I was the only African-American student on the basketball team at GW,” Dawkins said. “When we went to the state basketball tournament, our team did not stay at the same hotel with most of the other teams. We stayed much further out of the city because African-Americans were not permitted in some of the hotels in Richmond; at least that’s my memory.”
One of Dawkins’ classmates at GW was John Porter, the principal at T. C. Williams. He attended the all white Maury Elementary School.
“I didn’t have African-American friends because we lived in very separate neighborhoods then,” Porter said. “I wasn’t really aware of the Brown decision until junior high or high school. I saw the protests in Little Rock when that school system was desegregated and remember wondering why that was happening, but the Brown decision wasn’t really part of my reality as a child.”
HE FIRST ASSOCIATED with African-American students at GW. “When I was in high school, there were probably about five African-American students,” Porter said. “I probably knew Nolan Dawkins better than any of the other students because he was in a band with a friend of mine and I remember going to my friend’s house when the band was practicing. But there was still little association between the two races.”
After graduation, Dawkins went to college at a historically black college and Porter went to a predominantly white school. Porter came home in 1969 and started teaching at Parker-Gray, which was by that time, a junior high school. It was a very different school system than the one from which Porter had graduated just four years before.
“I started as a crisis teacher in a school that was about 50 percent white and 50 percent black,” he said. “It was very different than the school system I remembered but I don’t remember being concerned about the racial mix. I think I was more preoccupied with being a first-year teacher. No matter how much you learn in college and how much you believe you are prepared, it is nothing like being in a classroom for the first time, especially with junior high school students,” he said.
As the school system became further integrated, Porter says there were issues. “I am certain that there were issues but I really don’t remember any major problems,” he said. “Occasionally, in the teacher lunch room, you would hear inappropriate racial remarks but most of us just rolled our eyes and knew we didn’t want to behave in that manner,” Porter said.
IN 1973, Porter became an assistant principal at Francis Hammond, then a school that housed 9th and 10th grades. “This was two years after that 1971 Titan football team helped bring T. C. together and GW was fairly integrated,” Porter said. “However, Hammond was still predominantly white and there were still problems. We knew that we had to bring the school community together and move it forward and the team of people that the new principal assembled, along with the teachers, were able to make that happen.”
In 1976, Porter’s older son, Brian, entered Maury Elementary School. “We were paired with Lyles-Crouch so the school was really integrated and racially diverse,” Brian said. “I really didn’t think about race much then and did have African-American friends.
“I became aware of Brown because I learned about it in school. I was also aware of racial issues because they came up when I was in high school,” he said.
He remembers sporting events in Fairfax County, too. “There were issues when we went to play some of the more affluent and white schools in the county,” Brian Porter said. “Kids on those teams used to talk about T. C. and how it was a rough school and there were a lot of fights. I remember incidents where a pitcher at a school tried to hit me and I believe that some of that was because our teams at T. C. were very integrated.
Also, in my junior year, there were racial epithets spray painted on a wall outside T. C. and we believed that this was done by some Fairfax County high school kids,” he said. “By the time I graduated, though, T. C. was really diverse and there were friendships across all racial boundaries.”
Ashley Dawkins, Judge Dawkins’ daughter is a senior at T. C. this year. She said, “I take racial diversity for granted,” she said. “I have friends of all races and am most comfortable in a racially diverse environment. I do see that there are areas in which people are separate, but for the most part, I think things are pretty integrated here,” she said.
THE SCHOOL IS a majority minority school. Monica Raugitanane is one of Ashley’s classmates at T. C. She spoke during the NPR broadcast, of expanding Brown’s scope.
“We need to not just talk about integration as a black and white issue. It’s much more. It’s the foreign students here at T. C. who really aren’t integrated and it’s because they don’t speak the language we do or watch the programs that we watch. Most of us go off campus for lunch because that’s the thing to do. These kids who have come here from different countries don’t know that. We really need to work harder to include them.”
Ashley agreed with her classmate. “We associate with people we have things in common with, whoever they are and we do need to be more inclusive,” she said.
Research shows that students who attended integrated schools are not necessarily living integrated adult lives. “It is certainly better than it was in our parents’ day,” Dawkins said. “But it’s still about housing.”
Miller agreed. “Until we address the issues of segregated public housing, we will not have a truly integrated community. I believe that I live an integrated life but that’s because I work at it,” he said.
Porter also said that things are better. “It really has much more to do with where you live,” he said. “If you live in an integrated neighborhood, you tend to associate with those who live near you, no matter what race.”
His son Brian said that his life is quite integrated. “I worked as a police officer in Alexandria for several years,” he said. “The police department is very integrated and I made friends of all races working on the midnight shift. I don’t really think in terms of race when I think of my friends. That’s just not the way I grew up,” he said.
Ashley lives a very integrated life. “My friends are my friends,” she said.
DID BROWN fulfill its promise?
“Yes,” Miller said. “Brown wasn’t about integration; it was about desegregation and it’s important to remember that. I think that T. C. has been very successful but I don’t believe that many of those kids are truly integrated. They still go home to their own neighborhoods and many of those neighborhoods are still segregated,” he said.
Dawkins believes that Brown has made a difference. “It certainly made a difference in my life and gave me opportunities that I would never have had,” he said. “I was able to attend a high school that I would never have been able to have attended and then to go on to a predominantly white law school.”
Brian Porter said, “T. C. has been very successful because it has given those of us who attended the school tools to live in an increasingly diverse world,” he said.
His father agreed. “We hear that from our graduates all of the time,” John Porter said. “Whether they choose to attend a historically black college or to go to an Ivy League school, they are prepared to deal with diversity,” he said.
And that choice to attend historically black colleges and universities does not mean that Brown has failed. “It’s about choice,” Dawkins said. “Some of those kids are still more comfortable in a setting where people look like them and conduct social interactions in the way in which they are more comfortable. Brown makes that choice possible,” he said.