When Nolan Dawkins was in the 10th grade at Parker-Gray High School, he wanted opportunities that were not available to him at the city’s all-black high school. The year was 1963 and Alexandria’s schools were in the beginning stages of a radical transformation — the uneasy first days of racial desegregation. For Dawkins, the prospect of going to George Washington High School was a chance to expand his horizons and spread his wings.
"It was a risk, but it also opened up opportunities," said Dawkins, who is now a judge in the city’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. "It was like going into a whole different culture."
Under the city’s "freedom of choice" plan, Dawkins applied to transfer from Parker-Gray to George Washington. In many ways, he was like other teenagers, playing saxophone in the marching band and forward on the basketball team. But in other ways he was an unusual sight in the halls of George Washington, spending his junior and senior years of high school as part of an experiment — forging new territory on the vanguard of a movement to do away with generations of separate and unequal education.
"When I was there, there were only a handful of black students at George Washington," he said. "In my time, there wasn’t a great deal of overt hostility. But that was just how things were on the surface."
Dawkins knew that behind closed doors, hostilities were building in Alexandria. A series of federal court decisions in the 1950s had culminated in the "freedom of choice" plan that allowed Dawkins to attend George Washington. But it was a temporary fix — a means toward an end for a city that had yet to come to grips with eliminating a system of separate and unequal schools.
"Did I experience racism? The answer to that has probably got to be yes," he said. "But we’ve come a long way as a city since then."
SEGREGATED EDUCATION in Alexandria began before the Civil War. Antebellum legislators in Richmond imposed criminal penalties on those who taught blacks to read and write, intending to prevent slave rebellions like the one that expelled the French from Haiti in 1801. But historians have noted that these laws were frequently violated and seldom enforced because of the closeness with which blacks and whites lived.
"They lived in the same home, shared in the family life, often attended the same church, and talked and conversed with each other," wrote sociologist and historian W.E.B. DuBois, adding that "there were bonds of intimacy, affection and sometimes blood relationships between the races."
After the Civil War, Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags flooded into Richmond to write the 1869 Constitution — also known as the "Underwood Constitution" because the convention that created it was dominated by Judge John Underwood and the Radical Republicans. Trying to undo generations of damage, the Underwood Constitution established free public schools for all children between the ages of 5 and 21.
But when the military occupation of Virginia ended on Jan. 26, 1870, the commonwealth quickly tried to reinstitute a system of white supremacy. The city of Alexandria established segregated public schools in January 1871 — essentially instituting the dual system of education that would persist for almost 100 years. For whites, the city founded four schools for 601 students: Washington School and Custis School for boys and Lee School and Peabody School for girls.
For blacks, the city created two schools for 508 students: Snowden School for Boys in the 600 block of South Pitt Street and Hallowell School for Girls in the 400 block of North Alfred Street. In 1920, the two black schools were consolidated. Snowden Principal John Parker and Hallowell Principal Sarah Gray worked with city officials to create the Parker-Gray School for Girls and Boys, which offered grades 1 through 8.
Mabel Porter Price, who attended a reunion of former Parker-Gray students last June, was at the first day of classes in 1920. She was 12 years old when the doors of the new school opened in the 900 block of Wythe Street, and she had vivid memories of waking up every morning before the sun came up to work for a white family on Prince Street. She would pick up their mail, cook breakfast, serve coffee and clean up before arriving at school by 9 a.m. After school, she would return to Prince Street to help the white family prepare and serve supper before arriving home to do her lessons.
"They paid me $2.50 a week," said Price at the June reunion. "And after all of that, I was still on the honor roll."
When she finished the 8th grade, Price went to work full-time. Her schooling was over because the city of Alexandria did not offer high school classes for blacks. Her mother’s education at the Hallowell School for Girls also ended at grade 8 for the same reason. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that the city offered high-school classes for blacks by expanding the existing school to Parker-Gray High School — an institution that would be the center of the black community in Alexandria for more than 40 years.
"It was a very close-knit community, and you felt like everybody knew who you were and you knew everybody else," said Sharon Burke Musa, who attended the school in the early 1960s. "Many of the teachers were no-nonsense. Today, you would call them strict. But they knew their subjects very well, and they were committed to providing the best possible education for the students."
But the school system was not willing to create an equal distribution of resources for the city’s separate racial communities.
"We never had a new book — never," said Emily Butler Bullock, attended Parker-Gray in the early 1940s. "We always got the old books that were no longer used by the white students. I didn't even know what a new book looked like."
THE IDEAL OF a "separate but equal" educational system formed the philosophical basis for the city’s segregated schools — one that became accepted legal doctrine when the Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. But when the court issued its landmark Brown v. Board decision in 1954 — demanding that schools become desegregated with "all deliberate speed" — state and local officials dragged their feet. In Richmond, Gov. Thomas Stanley made his hostility to racially integrated education clear.
"I shall use every legal means at my command to continue segregated education in Virginia," he said shortly after the Supreme Court decision was announced.
U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd, whose political machine ran Virginia politics in those days, organized opposition from his Senate office in Washington. Byrd told supporters that the 1954 Supreme Court decision was "the most serious blow that has ever been struck against the rights of the states," adding that it "will bring implications and dangers of the greatest consequences." Eventually, he put together a plan to deny state funding to any school that place whites and blacks in the same classroom.
In Alexandria, Superintendent T.C. Williams routinely denied blacks entrance to whites-only schools, carrying out Byrd’s program of "massive resistance" at the local level. One member of the legislature who challenged the Byrd machine’s all-or-nothing approach to resisting integration was state Sen. Armistead Boothe, who represented Alexandria in the state Senate.
"To date, we have not begun to fulfill our duty and yet already we are asked to take a step toward abolition of our public schools," Boothe wrote in a July 1954 letter to key Democratic members of the General Assembly. "It is not in our Southern tradition to surrender at Appomattox before we even fight the first battle of Manassas."
But the Byrd machine dismissed Boothe’s gradualism, setting Virginia on a collision course with destiny. In 1959, United States District Judge Albert Bryan ordered the Alexandria School Board to admit nine black students to three traditionally white schools. Local and state officials couldn’t stall any more — they were now forced to take a first step toward desegregation whether they wanted to or not.
On Feb. 10, 1959, the Alexandria Gazette’s front-page headline heralded a new era of education: "Integration Peaceful at All Three Schools." Recounting the setting of the city’s first day of integrated education, the newspaper described the scene at one of the schools as hectic but nonviolent.
"Press services, television news cameramen and newsreel photographers stood at some distance from the building to record the moment for the rest of the United States and other countries," the Gazette reported. "In all instances, what they found was quiet, little controversy and the beaming faces of the new students and their relatives who accompanied them."
From 1959 to 1962, the city took a piecemeal approach — allowing blacks to apply for positions in white schools. Critics called it "passive resistance" because it left many of the lingering inequalities unaddressed. But when Williams announced his intention to retire on Jan. 1, 1963, many in Alexandria saw the opportunity for change.
After the School Board appointed John Albohm as the city’s new superintendent in March 1963, he immediately began putting together a new plan to radically transform the city’s schools. In 1965, Parker-Gray was closed just as T.C. Williams was opening — ending a chapter in the history of black life in Alexandria just as a new one was beginning.
For Parker-Gray, the school days have ended. The building that once housed the school isn’t around anymore, and the legacy of segregated schools is now a relic. T.C. Williams’ name has become an ironic emblem of peaceful coexistence between races and cultures. And all that’s left of the old, blacks-only school is a small plaque near the Braddock Street Metro Station.
ALBOHM MADE another significant reorganization in 1971, moving all juniors and seniors from George Washington High School and Hammond High School to T.C. Williams — creating one high school for the entire spectrum of the city’s residents. For the last 35 years, T.C. Williams High School has been the common denominator in Alexandria. Its graduates include Mayor William Euille, Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel and Sheriff Dana Lawhorne.
T.C. Williams Principal John Porter remembers the difficult struggle to integrate Alexandria as a long and important crusade for equality. As a 1965 graduate of George Washington High School, Porter recalls being part of the early days of integrated education in the city — walking alongside Nolan Dawkins and the other black teenagers who led the way toward integrating the city’s schools.
"I remember saying to myself that this was the right thing to do," Porter said. "But, for the most part, this was something the adults were fighting over. We didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. I’ve always thought that the whole thing would have worked much better if they had just let the kids handle it."
Porter said that since the 1971 reorganization, T.C. Williams High School has become an institutional model of pluralism — teaching public-school students the importance of respecting differences and honoring diversity.
"Students always come back and say how this school prepared them for the world," Porter said. "Maybe if the city had begun integration earlier, when the Supreme Court first issued the Brown v. Board ruling, we might not have had such a hard time."