Dark days: 50th anniversary quietly remembered
Fifty years ago, the governor of Virginia ordered two schools in Charlottesville shut rather than admit black children. And without the efforts of two private citizens, that date– September 19– would slip by as just another day in a "world-class city."
Former city councilor Kendra Hamilton and social theater director Mecca Burns got together about a month ago "to complain that no one was doing anything," says Hamilton.
"I've been trying to get people interested in doing a commemoration all spring," she says. "I think something needs to be done to mark this anniversary."
The anniversary is this: Even four years after the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which threw out so-called "separate but equal" rulings that kept white and black students segregated, Charlottesville's School Board resolutely had fought a lawsuit brought by black parents to enroll their children in white schools.
When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Charlottesville's appeal, on September 10, 1958, federal Judge John Paul ordered the School Board accept 10 African-American children in Venable Elementary and two in Lane High School.
Virginia's segregationists were ready. Led by Senator Harry Byrd Sr., who articulated what would become known as "massive resistance," the General Assembly had enacted laws to allow the governor to shut down schools rather than integrate. And that's what Governor Lindsay Almond did on September 18, 1958. On September 19, Venable and Lane stayed closed, and hundreds of local children were without a public school classroom for five months, until those schools reopened February 4, 1959.
Over the summer of 1958, the conversation on integration changed, recalls UVA history professor Paul Gaston. "Up until that time, very few people spoke out that integration was a good thing," he says. "On the sidelines were all these moderates."
And while they might have hesitated to advocate integration, the conversation changed to, "Are you for public education or not?" says Gaston. And a lot of people were– even if it meant integration.
Parents mobilized. The Charlottesville Education Foundation opened two whites-only private schools: Robert E. Lee Elementary and Rock Hill Academy. The Parents Committee for Emergency Schooling supported public education and organized classrooms in private basements during those five months while the schools were closed.
"I think there's a lot of fear in talking about that in Charlottesville because they're afraid of opening a can of worms," says Hamilton of what she calls a "shameful" period. "It doesn't fit in with the little liberal enclave that Charlottesville's become."
"The image of doors being closed is a potent symbol." says Mecca Burns. "It's natural to want to bury history when it causes pain."
She and Hamilton envision an interactive exhibit at Free Speech Wall September 19 with music and a wreath to honor the Jefferson and Burley students who attempted to integrate white schools. People will have an opportunity to respond, either in writing or by recording their memories and feelings.
Burns, with the Presence Center for Applied Theatre Art, thinks applying the arts to social issues can help with the healing. "Art can render the meaning and dignity of a historic event so you can talk about it without shutting down emotionally," she says.
The challenge for Burns: "Shedding light on both the traumas and the glories in our shared history."
For Hamilton, there's a personal element. "I'm from the integration generation," she says. "I integrated my high school in Charleston in the 1970s." And that's a whole other story, the generation of kids who were a "social experiment," she says.
She points to familiar faces in the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King or the four little girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing. But what, she asks, about the kid who had to walk into a formerly segregated school, the only black in a sea of white faces?
"We don't know the cost of when people walked through those doors," says Hamilton. "You were not going to be the prom queen. You were not going to be the editor of the yearbook, and you were not going to be the drum major. You were not given a leadership role. I want those people recognized. Parents kind of used children as shock troops."
Charles Alexander was one of those kids. Now a motivational speaker known as Alex-Zan, he says that in the spring of 1958, to the best of his knowledge, he became the first African American to enroll in a white school in Virginia when his mother signed him up to go to first grade at Venable, which was right around the corner from his house. She also was one of the 12 who joined the lawsuit.
To him, the parents are the heroes. "You've got people who sacrificed and made a commitment that this was going to take place," he says.
September 19 "calls for a moment for us to pause and reflect on that moment 50 years ago, and what it means to us today," says Hamilton. And she quotes William Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It isn't even past."
Massive resistance remembrance: 4pm September 19 at the Free Speech wall on the east end of the Downtown Mall.