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By Lawrence Roberts
57 years ago this week, Arlington was at the epicenter of a quake that shook the foundations of the conservative, segregationist establishment in Virginia that was devoted to “Massive Resistance” against school integration.
On the morning of February 2, 1959, four young African-American students enrolled for classes at Stratford Junior High School (now home of the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs). They did so after January 1959 state and federal courts rulings that struck down key Massive Resistance laws as unconstitutional.
The integration of Stratford – together with 17 African-American students in Norfolk entering previously all-white schools – marked the first time that any of Virginia’s K-12 schools were integrated, nearly five years after the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered the end of segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education.
It would be many more years before integration became a reality across the Commonwealth. The death knell for segregation in Virginia occurred in 1970 when Governor Linwood Holton became the first Virginia Governor to support integration by using his inaugural speech to call for an end to racial discrimination in Virginia.
Later that year, Holton escorted his daughter to begin classes at the nearly all-black John F. Kennedy High School in August 1971. A photo of that event was seen across the country and appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
Gov. Holton’s actions had the intended effect of providing opportunities for service by African Americans at high levels of government in Virginia and also to make Virginia part of a “New South” movement to make the region more competitive for economic development, entrepreneurs, tourists and top students from around the country and the world.
All of Virginia’s progress on integration and greater educational opportunity over the ensuing decades was possible because of the brave actions of Arlingtonians who helped bring about the integration of Stratford in February 1959.
The bravery was most evident on the part of the four students – Ronald Deskins, Michael Jones, Lance Newman and Gloria Thompson. But many others – parents, teachers, administrators, School Board members, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, and community leaders – both black and white – were integral to the many years of effort that led to making that moment a reality.
Stories about this bravery were kept alive over time through the efforts of parents and community leaders who had been involved.
Broader recognition of the events of February 1959 was spurred by Arlington Educational Television’s 2001 production of a documentary “It’s Just Me: The Integration of the Arlington Public Schools.”
On the 50th anniversary in February 2009, then Governor (now U.S. Senator) Tim Kaine and First Lady Anne Holton (daughter of Linwood Holton and now Virginia’s Secretary of Education) joined the Arlington community in remembering Stratford’s historic significance.
And this week, Arlington County, Arlington Public Schools, NAACP-Arlington Branch and the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington invited the community to an event honoring those who fought for school integration and made history at Stratford.
The hundreds in attendance heard from our County and School Board Chairs (Libby Garvey and Emma Violand-Sanchez), the presidents of the local NAACP and Black Heritage Museum (Karen Nightengale and Craig Syphax), and a panel that included among others three of the four African-American students who enrolled at Stratford in February 1959 and a 104 year old former Stratford teacher who welcomed two of the four students to her classroom that day.
If you would like additional information about this proud moment in Arlington history, good places to start are the APS website and the Arlington Public Library website. The 2001 documentary is available on YouTube.
Larry Roberts is a 30-year resident of Arlington and an attorney in private practice. He chaired two successful statewide campaigns and is a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.
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