I remember this period vividly, as I was one of the first wave of black students in my County to integrate a previously white school. In my case a Junior High School, covering grades 7 and 8. There were 7 of us, 5 girls and 2 boys, who in 1963 volunteered as part of the rolling integration plan, which had started in 1960 with the integration of a few Elementary Schools by a few volunteers. We were a select group, considered the brightest kids in our area, out of the pool of potential candidates, and received some special counseling by both our parents and the local NAACP relative to how to react to some of the things which undoubtedly would be thrown our way – both physically and mentally.
RICHMOND — For some of the black students who took the first steps toward integrating Virginia’s public schools more than a half-century ago, the memories of their hardships have not faded with time.
“That was the worst two and a half years of my life,” said Andrew Heidelberg, one of 17 black students to attend previously all-white Norfolk public schools in 1959, as Virginia’s efforts to resist racial integration began slowly to unravel.
“Most people really don’t understand how we were treated,” Heidelberg said Friday at the state Capitol, where former students, lawyers, academics and political leaders examined the legacy of Virginia’s “massive resistance” movement.
The conference was organized by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics for its 12th annual Virginia Political History Project.
Black students recounted the fear, verbal abuse and other indignities they suffered when they ventured into all-white schools. Political leaders, including two former governors, recalled the extreme steps Virginia’s government took to keep blacks from attending school with whites.
“It tore Virginia apart and, tragically, the harm will never be understood,” said state Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, who waged school integration battles as a civil rights lawyer.
Virginia’s massive resistance policy was the state’s final attempt to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and subsequent federal court orders to integrate public schools. The state’s resistance was effectively led by former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd, whose conservative Democratic organization dominated state and local politics.
“Everybody was afraid to buck this aura around senior Senator Byrd,” said former Gov. Linwood Holton, the first Republican Virginia governor of the 20th century.
In the fall of 1958, several schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville and Warren County were closed to evade court orders to integrate, but courts forced the schools to reopen in February 1959.
But the students who integrated those schools faced even harder challenges after the legal barriers were removed, said panelists at Friday’s conference.
They encountered threats, epithets and ugly stereotypes, even from adults. Delores Brown, who joined Heidelberg at Norfolk’s Norview High School, said an administrator refused to let her take a physical education class and told her, “You’re not going to be dirtying up our showers, now go on to your class.”
“That first day was very humiliating to me,” Brown said.
Henry Cabarrus recalled the fear he felt when he joined in a lawsuit challenging the closing of schools in Prince Edward County, which remained closed until 1964.
“People will see me, they’ll know me and they’ll kill me,” he remembered thinking.
Talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I had repressed the memories of this for over 20 years. One day, my daughter was doing a group project on Civil Rights with her study group as part of a school project. She, and three of her study mates asked to interview me, to discuss what it was like in three, of the many experiences –
During the first two months or so, when I sat down to lunch at our assigned tables (which was assigned by home room group), which were tables similar to the fold up long church tables strung together in long strings end to end across the Cafeteria/Auditorium, there immediately would be a circle of empty chairs around me, as all of the white kids got up and moved. This happened to a lesser degree to the black females. If I came in late, sometimes the white kids would jostle to fill seats so I couldn’t sit in a particular area.
It didn’t stop until the class bully challenged my right to sit down across from him in the only available seat, by throwing his Pizza lunch onto my white shirt and tie (resulting in one hell of a donnybrook, and a three day suspension for me). My dad was really old school, and he believed that being presentable included wearing a white shirt and tie every day to school – regardless of what the white kids wore. I was kinda’ proud of my ties – so messing up one of my ties was a sure way to get me going. Second, the bully apparently wasn’t aware of the fact that in those days – you just didn’t lose a fight to a white kid. To do so was to lose your neighborhood “black card”, and be subject to merciless teasing by both the guys and girls.
After the throwdown with the class bully, this level of harassment receded, and eventually dropped down to the noise level as those kids who shared interests with me, as well as some whose motivation was in no small part protection from the bullies, formed a clique.
The second instance had to do with the other black male skipping a class. Over the PA System, the school Principal announced “BT or John report to the office.” When we both appeared, he announced – “One of you is in trouble for skipping Mrs. Watson’s 3rd period Algebra.” I pointed out that my Algebra Class was 5th period, and my teacher was Mr. Smith – for which we both were suspended. He claimed no to know which one of us was guilty.
The last had to do with one of the Teachers in 7th Grade English. She made it clear the first day her drawl came from her Mississippi heritage. The first grading period I earned an “F”, which upset my educator parents to no end. They believed I needed to study and bear down to pull my grade up. By now, I knew that regardless of what I did, I wasn’t going to pass. One of the white kids that I had struck a friendship with, who was a straight A student proposed that we each write a paper, type it, and put the others name at the top. We would then hand in each others papers. Sure enough, my (his) paper came back with an “F”, and his (mine) with an “A”. She hadn’t even bothered to read the paper with my name on it. I took the papers first to my parents, and then to the Administration. The Administration took the names off the top of the papers, and submitted them for grading by a group of English teachers. Both papers earned a net average of a “B” Grade. For which, my Dad kicked my behind for not doing better.
Normally you would expect this sort of gross misconduct to result in a dismissal. Not in those days. I had to stay in that class for the term. I did get a “C” in the class for the year based on averaging the grades with the “F” first term – but needless to say, it was brutal.
I explained to the group that not everyone was “bad” or “evil”, nor for many of the white kids was the issue racism. Because Virginia (and much of the country) was segregated right down to the neighborhood level, many of the kids had formed friendships in their racial groups since kindergarten (as had I in the black community). We few black kids represented the unknown. Most of the white kids who opened up first were kids with Military or Foreign Service backgrounds. They too, were the “New Kids” on the block. For the parents and educators the issue was to some extent racism, but more often peer pressure – “What would the Joneses think?”
My daughter and the other kids were stunned. I left them putting their heads together on writing up what they had learned. With a tear in my eye, I hadn’t realized how deeply I had repressed these memories…