Although the Civil War had ended 100 years earlier, in 1965 civil rights and desegregation was just picking up a head of steam in Virginia. That was the year they closed Parker-Gray High School and opened T.C. Williams.
"When the Civil Rights Act was passed, the Federal Government told the schools to get some balance," said A. Melvin Miller last Thursday night at the Alexandria Black History Museum. He was one of three speakers addressing the topic, "The Civil Rights Movement in Virginia: Alexandria Perspective."
Featured as a "Gallery Talk" due to its location in the Parker-Gray Gallery of the Wythe Street museum, the panel discussion was the kick off event for a new exhibit which highlights various aspects of the civil rights movement, with particular emphasis on some of the more obvious symbols of segregation.
On one wall is a water fountain with a sign over it "colored." Just above that is a photo of a Klu Klux Klan meeting. A few feet away is another photo of two white police officers dragging an African American woman while one officer holds a police dog.
Situated on the museum's stage is a portion of a lunch counter and three stools. It is backed by a wallsize photograph showing an early desegregation attempt by black teenagers in a previously all white venue. The exhibit is the work of Audrey Davis, assistant director/curator of the museum.
"When I first came here housing was a major issue. I was a single parent and I had to live in public housing," said Gwendolyn Menefee, a long-time Alexandria resident and the lead off speaker.
She was instrumental in organizing the first Tenants Association. "We marched and we were successful in getting things changed. I was investigated by the FBI, the Secret Service, and the local police. But it was very rewarding to know I could contribute," Menefee said.
"Housing is still the key. But now it is a matter of price. If we are not careful Alexandria is going to be a place for only the rich and the poor. There will be no middle class," she warned.
MENEFEE WAS FOLLOWED by Andy Evans, author, producer, and star of his one-man play, "Andy's Run: When Laughter Is Mightier Than a Rock." Since its premier run in Alexandria several years ago, it has been seen throughout the United States. It returns to Alexandria May 6 at the Old Town Theater.
As a comedian and author, Evans is a firm believer that comedy can relieve many of life's stresses. To advance that philosophy he has written "Take a Break! The Comedy Counselor's Guide to Stress Relief."
When he returned to Alexandria following his tour of duty in Vietnam he discovered "there were no blacks even working in City Hall" let alone holding office. "The 60's and 70's gave us something to work on," Evans said.
What concerns him is the seeming lack of purpose among this generation of African Americans. "Where is the next generation to step up? We need to find a way to help this generation. This is not the time for finger pointing," he said.
Evans began his presentation with a tribute to Miller. "Mel was one of those black lawyers that you could pow wow with and get a brother out," he said.
For his part, Miller acknowledged that when he came to Alexandria in 1958 as a graduate of Harvard Law School, "It shocked me." But, "If I could pick anytime in life to relive it would from 1958 until now in Alexandria."
There was a group of people that planned and engineered the civil rights movement in Alexandria. They were known as "The Secret Seven." Miller was one of them. However, as he stated last Thursday night, "We were not secret and we were more than seven."
Miller served as Assistant to the Deputy Secretary for Management, Planning and Operations, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. His credentials include: Chairman, Alexandria School Board; Member, State Council of Higher Education; Former president, Advisory Council, Alexandria Branch, Washington Urban League; and Interim President and current Chairman, Board of Trustee, St. Augustine College in Raleigh, N.C. Today he serves as chairman of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
"Until the decision to desegregate schools in Alexandria, we had no representation in the decision making process of this city," he said. "The three primary issues of the civil rights movement were education, public accommodations and housing."
Serving as moderator for the panel was Lillian S. Patterson, museum curator. Prior to and following the Gallery Talk, attendees enjoyed a reception in the Robert Robinson Library.