The children of Newport News Shipyard workers walk to school in this May, 1942 photograph taken by Pat Terry of the Farm Services Administration. Fifty years after the Supreme Court decision thatoutlawed racial discrimination in America's schools, Brown v. Boardof Education is widely remembered as a revolutionary moment. Butthe landmark case represented only one clash in an epic strugglethat had been under way for years - and which was ultimately foughtand won in local schoolyards. One of the first and most bitterlycontested cases in Hampton Roads took place in Newport News, wherethe decision to turn 10 black kids away from a white elementaryschool led to nearly two decades of legal strife.Even more defiantwas the response in Surry County, where whites simply abandoned the public schools rather than integrate. As it did during the CivilWar, Virginia became a decisive battleground, witnessing morelawsuits than any other state as black students, parents andattorneys challenged the forces of Massive Resistance. Yet evenhere, some communities adapted to this wrenching change smoothly.Hampton, in particular, found ways to bridge its racial gaps andreform an entrenched tradition of segregation with far less troublethan its neighbors.The complex history of this long crusade - plusits frustrating and less than clear-cut results - make up thesubject of a special Daily Press report that starts today,continues every Sunday in May and marks the May 17 anniversary ofthe 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling with special coverage.Beginning with the now-unthinkable inequalities of the Jim Crowera, we will trace this movement's progress for both good and bad,re-examining not only the fight to integrate but also theunexpected losses suffered in the process. We'll survey the stateof racial relations and student achievement in our schools today -and consider ways in which their persistent record of shortcomingsmight be combated. Lastly, we'll invite our readers to a communityforum, asking them to size up the impact of an upheaval that - inthe span of a single lifetime - has forever changed the society inwhich we live. We'll publish the results of this dialogue at theclose of the series on May 30 - the same day that we review thenewpaper's changing, and sometimes backward-looking, role in thishistoric struggle. -- By Mark St. JohnErickson
The Road toEquality
From classes to materials, educationalinvestment was unequal for black children School segregation wasoften a formal introduction for children into a racially stratifiedsociety Daily Press Sometimein the 1940s, a deliveryman made a mistake. He unloaded the wrongrolls of toilet paper at the wrong Newport News school. HuntingtonHigh administrators told their black students to use the paperbefore the mistake was discovered. White kids wiped with softpaper. Black kids wiped with coarse.
In Gloucester County duringthe late 1940s, someone in a passing school bus yelled racial slursat two black girls standing beside the road. One girl shouted back.The driver stopped, white kids piled out, and the girls ran. Whitekids rode to school. Black kids walked. In Suffolk in the 1930s, ablack teenager picked up supplies at a white high school to bringback to his classmates. As he passed an open window, he heard astrange noise: clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack.Inside, an entire class pounded away on typewriters. Back at theteen's school, the only typewriter belonged to the principal. Whitekids studied for college and careers. Black kids "trained" forsweat-of-the-brow jobs, not professions.
"You knew when you walked out of that school that world was closed to you," said T.C.Williams, an 84-year-old retired postal service worker who didn'tlearn to type until years later. School segregation was alwaysseparate, never equal and always resisted by black families livingin Hampton Roads during the first half of the 20th century. Incities, such as Newport News and Hampton, those families donatedtime and money to bolster overcrowded and neglected public schools,bought framed pictures for bare walls, repaired tattered secondhandtextbooks and took pride in the purchase of typewriters. In rural counties, such as York, James City, Nansemond and Surry,black families opened private academies, which offered a secondaryeducation to black students at a time when even white childrenoften ended schooling in the seventh grade. In the late 1930s,however, black families and teachers began to challenge whiteofficials who refused to improve black schools. Their weapon was aseries of lawsuits seeking equality within segregation.
Virginiabecame a key battleground for civil rights lawyers in the twodecades before the U.S. Supreme Court ended school segregation inMay 1954, in part because Virginia was far less likely to erupt inracial violence than other Southern states. Those early lawsuits -filed in places such as Newport News and Surry and Gloucestercounties - sapped the strength of segregation. They planted theseeds for the court-ordered integration to come. But beforeintegration was achieved, racial discrimination was endured,expected and often endorsed by leading white thinkers who cloakedclaims of white superiority in supposed scientific fact. Schoolsegregation was just one aspect of legalized discrimination. But itwas one of the toughest obstacles children faced as they struggledto obtain better jobs, better homes and better lives.
In 1892, Homer Plessy, a racially mixed shoemaker, boarded a train inNew Orleans with hopes of challenging a state law that required"equal but separate accommodations." He sat in a railcar reservedfor white passengers. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Courtupheld the Louisiana law, noting that state legislators elsewherehad passed similar laws, particularly in regards to schooling.Virginia, for example, had required separate schools for black andwhite children since passing its first public-education law in1870. Before the Civil War, educating blacks, whether free orslave, was illegal in Virginia. At the time, the Plessy v. Fergusonruling gained little notice locally. It simply recognized thestatus quo.
The New Daily Pilot in Norfolk did not deem the storyworthy of the next day's edition. The Richmond Dispatch ran afour-paragraph story on page six. A few days later, an editorialsuggested drafting similar laws in other Southern states. "It wasnot a big deal," said Davison Douglas, a law professor who teachesat the College of William and Mary. Racial segregation, whetherenforced by law or local custom, intensified significantly in thefirst two decades of the 20th century, dividing blacks and whitesin ways that had never before occurred in the South. Southernsegregation assumed the nickname Jim Crow, a stock stage characterin minstrel song-and-dance acts performed by white actors withblack cork rubbed on their faces. Jim Crow laws pushed blacks tothe back of buses, restricted them to living in certainneighborhoods and stripped them of the ballot.
Even outside oflaws, the Jim Crow culture barred blacks from certain stores, paidthem less for the same work and neglected their children'seducation. Separate was never equal. Not until 1919 did NewportNews convert a classroom at a black elementary school into amakeshift high school. Before then, a city survey said parents senttheir teen-agers to Hampton, Petersburg, Richmond and Washington,D.C., for a high-school education.
Several area localities,particularly rural counties, did not open public high schools forblack students until the late 1930s or 1940s. Teachers in Isle ofWight taught most black students in churches and lodges becausethere weren't enough schools for black children. Georgie Tyler, whoworked in Isle of Wight schools for 34 years, once asked officialsto donate public land for new black schools.
"Criticism startedfrom every direction," Tyler wrote. "I was censured for havingsuggested such a thing." With little hope of public funding, blackparents pooled their money and sought donations from charities andphilanthropists to open private academies. Black residents inGloucester County opened an academy in 1888 with money prominentblack leaders. They also built a public secondary school, calledthe Gloucester Training School, in the early 1920s. The new Gloucester Training School opened in September 1921 after the black community and private, often Northern donors contributed funds for its construction. Though much of the instruction focused on vocational training, the teachers also addressed academic subjects, leading one black leader to describe these rural centers as "boot-leg high schools." T.C. Walker, a prominent black lawyer, donated the down payment andled a fund-raising drive after school officials refused to help. InSurry County, former slave John Smallwood built a large, 4-storybrick school for the county's rural black youths. The school closedin 1928, about 14 years after Smallwood died. In York County, blackvolunteers cleared two acres of public land, sawed trees intoboards and built a two-story, four-room schoolhouse that opened in1915.
Charles Brown, a black York educator from 1914 to 1933, oncesaid black high schools were often called training schools to avoidoffending white officials, particularly in areas without a highschool for white students. "It was a kind of 'bootleg high school,'" Brown said. "Nevertheless, a very potent product."
Northernphilanthropists contributed to improving education for Southernblack students. Nearly every city and county in this area hadclassrooms and schools financed by Julius Rosenwald, president ofSears, Roebuck and Co. in Chicago. The Rosenwald schools usuallyfeatured a peaked roof over an entranceway that led into two tofour rooms where classes were taught to students in first throughsixth grades. Tall windows flooded the poorly heated schoolhouseswith sunlight. Students who arrived at the schools early helpedteachers ignite coal-burning stoves.
"In the mornings it was cold,"said Marion Randall, who attended such a school in Gloucester, "andit was very difficult to concentrate." Black parents and educatorsalso improved their schools - often a center of civic life - asmuch as they could by donating money for things such as athleticuniforms, musical instruments and cafeteria equipment. Newport Newsparents supplemented the salary paid to Huntington High PrincipalLutrelle Palmer. Families in Williamsburg and Nansemond County, nowSuffolk, bought their own buses. Even so, teachers and parentsstruggled to overcome the chronic poverty and overt racism thathandicapped so many black Virginians during the Jim Crow era.
Astatistical report published in 1941 figured school boardsstatewide spent about $29 per white child and about $13 per blackchild. The same report estimated that about 5 percent of whiteadults could not read or write compared to about 19 percent ofblack adults. But change was coming. In the late 1930s, teachersand families and lawyers began to sue school districts to forcethem to make black schools truly equal with white schools. "It wasVirginia blacks insisting on their rights," said Douglas, theWilliam & Mary professor, "and their leaders are Richmondlawyers."
On a Friday morning in November 1937, a thousandblack teachers and administrators applauded as a NAACP officialtold them during a convention at Hampton Institute, now HamptonUniversity, how teachers in Maryland were winning lawsuits forequal pay. Virginia's black educators had long complained aboutracial salary differences.
Black teachers earned on average $558annually while white teachers earned $864. A white janitor earned ahigher salary at a Norfolk high school than the black principal andteachers. Richmond paid its most experienced black male teachersone dollar less than it paid its least experienced white femaleteachers. Palmer, the Huntington High principal and a driving forcein the pursuit for equal salaries, chastised his daughter foraccepting a job in Newport News that paid her a third less permonth than a beginning white teacher earned.
After the speech, theVirginia State Teachers Association, which had about 3,700 members,voted unanimously to file equal-pay lawsuits in partnership withthe NAACP. The vote launched a statewide campaign that helped erodethe legal basis for school segregation so deeply that lawyers laterpushed for integration. Similar lawsuits were filed in otherstates. "It's not challenging segregation," said Peter Wallenstein,a Virginia Tech history professor. "It's within segregation, butit's saying separate and equal are not the same."
The NAACP, acivil rights group founded in 1909, had decided a few years earlierto fight school segregation - from grade schools to graduateschools - under the leadership of Charles Houston, its lead lawyer.Houston believed that inferior education prevented blacks fromgetting better jobs, made them less likely to defend their rightsand symbolized "more drastic discriminations," according to "TheNAACP's Legal Strategy Against Segregated Education, 1925-1930."Virginia played a pivotal role in the campaign, Douglas said. Blackplaintiffs were less likely to encounter violence here than in theDeep South.
Also, Virginia was closer than other Southern states toNAACP headquarters in New York and to Howard University, a blackcollege with a law school in Washington, D.C. Scholars credit agroup of Richmond lawyers - Oliver Hill, Samuel Tucker, MartinMartin and Spottswood Robinson - with coordinating most of theVirginia lawsuits, including those in Hampton Roads. These lawyershad graduated from Howard University, just like Houston and
Thurgood Marshall, a NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court justice.At the time, Virginia did not provide a law school for blackstudents. Howard professors instilled students with an obligationto correct racial injustices, said Philip Walker, a Newport Newsnative and Howard graduate involved with the case to desegregatehis hometown's schools.
"You would develop it if you did not haveit," Walker said. "You sure weren't going to get it at the
University of Virginia or William and Mary." In 1938, Norfolkteacher Aline Black volunteered to become the first Virginiateacher to sue for equal pay. She lost in a state circuit court.The School Board decided not to renew her employment contractbefore an appeal could be heard. Leery teachers hesitated tosacrifice their jobs, but Melvin Alston, who headed the Norfolkblack teachers group, stepped forward and sued in the fall of 1939.His case seesawed through the courts.
Ultimately, the Supreme Courtrefused in November 1940 to overturn a federal appeals courtdecision that labeled the pay disparities unconstitutional. Norfolkwas ordered to equalize salaries by January 1943. The successprompted other lawsuits across the state. It also encouraged somelocalities to make changes before teachers filed cases. In NewportNews, teacher Dorothy Roles sued for equal pay and won her case inJanuary 1943, but the School Board refused to comply with the courtorder for more than two years.
Six months after the ruling, theSchool Board dismissed three teachers and three principals,including Palmer, by refusing to renew their annual contracts.Palmer had worked in Newport News schools for 23 years. SchoolChairman Dorsey Pleasants never publicly linked the firings to thelawsuit, saying only that the action was taken "for the good of thesystem." Palmer later told people that the superintendent hadwarned him to drop his support for the lawsuit or risk his job.
The dismissals spurred mass meetings and a petition with more than2,000 signatures. A judge sided with the School Board. Distrustlingered for decades, even regarding the pay raises that finallycame. "It was equalized, as far as we knew," said Artemesia Carter,who taught home economics in Newport News from 1948 to 1976. "Butthere were lots of things that went on behind closed doors." Schoolofficials attempted to address the damage in the 1970s by namingschools after Palmer and Roles, who had married and taken thesurname Watkins. Lawyers filed few salary-related lawsuits afterthe Newport News case was settled because most localities hadagreed by then to equalize pay. The next round of lawsuits focusedon correcting physical discrepancies, such as school buildings, busservice and curriculum. NAACP lawyers again crisscrossed the statesearching for plaintiffs.
"I was telling people now that we've gotthe teachers straightened out," said lawyer Hill, who's now 97."We're going after the schools and bus transportation." Two locallawsuits - one in Gloucester County and one in Surry County - wereparticularly noteworthy. Both cases were filed in 1947 and resultedin federal court rulings that ordered the school districts toimprove black schools. In Surry, black students attended classes inthe newly built L.P. Jackson School in 1951. Industrial teacher Isabella Smith, shown at right conducting a sewing lesson in this undated photo, was a prominent figure in the drive by Gloucester County blacks to establish a training school. In Gloucester, a new school was built after an attempt tointegrate. Lawyers inspected the Gloucester Training School in thefall of 1948 - five months after a federal court orderedimprovements to the building, heating system and equipment.
Theyfound no major changes, only some used appliances and other itemsmoved from the white schools into the black school. Afterward,lawyers tried to enroll a group of black teens at Botetourt HighSchool, which was for white students, to drive home their pointabout inequality. The Botetourt principal wrote down their names,and then he told them to enroll instead at the black school. Bothsides returned to court. Back in the courtroom, civil-rights lawyerMartin pitched an easy way to settle the dispute.
"The school boarddoesn't seem to realize that it can equalize schools tomorrow,"Martin said. The county's lawyer swiveled in his chair and askedhow. "They can do it tomorrow by letting those colored childreninto Botetourt High School." Ultimately, the School Board receivedgrant money to build a new black school in 1950.
That funding cameafter county voters opposed borrowing $300,000 to build the school."It was a shock," said Marion Randall, who had attended a Rosenwaldschool. "We left this very primitive building and moved to a modernfacility. I thought I was in heaven." One year later, countyresidents voted to spend $500,000 to build a new high school forwhite teenagers.
As Martin's remarks foretold, the NAACP againchanged its strategy at this time. A 1950 Supreme Court decisionsaid that a separate law school created for black students at theUniversity of Texas could never equal the white law school.Separate schools excluded future black lawyers from professionalrelationships and other intangibles associated with a respected lawschool. Civil rights lawyers no longer sought equalization. Theywanted integration. In Virginia, lawyers like Hill refused toaccept any more lawsuits seeking to equalize black schools.
In an attempt to head off more lawsuits, state and local officialskept pumping money into black education. Some cities and countieseventually spent more annually in black schools than in whiteschools. "What lots of Southern states begin to figure out over thecourse of the 1940s," Douglas said, "is if they don't equalizethings, they'll be forced to integrate." In Virginia, the bid forintegration came in Prince Edward County, which sits betweenRichmond and Lynchburg. Hill and his law partners visited thecounty in April 1951 after a high school senior called them forhelp. Students had refused to attend classes until local officialsimproved their school.
Hill and partner Robinson filed a lawsuit onbehalf of 117 students. They asked the courts to strike downVirginia's school segregation law - a law that traced back about 80years. A U.S. District Court rejected the request and orderedcounty officials to equalize the black school. The black familiesappealed. The Supreme Court considered the case as one of the fivelawsuits that made up the Brown v. Board of Education decision. InMay 1954, justices ordered desegregation.
Many Southern congressmenresponded quickly and fiercely, pledging to defy the court order."The abolishment of segregation in our schools will not enhance but- on the contrary - will lower the standards of public education,"said U.S. Rep. William Tuck, a former governor from South Boston.Local officials mostly waited in silence for direction from thestate political machine that marched to orders issued by Sen. HarryByrd, who warned that the decision "will bring implications anddangers of the greatest consequence."
A year later, the SupremeCourt handed the job of integrating schools "with all deliberatespeed" to local district courts. The ruling muddied the outlook fordesegregation. District courts, in Hampton Roads and elsewhere, hadregularly rejected arguments made by civil-rights lawyers over theprior two decades for equal teacher pay and for equal schools andequipment.
The NAACP saw the ruling as a concession to whiteSoutherners who favored gradual, rather than immediate,integration. Much had changed, but much remained the same. The sameschool officials and community leaders who had endorsed segregationand opposed equalization would oversee integration. None of themcould trump the Supreme Court. But, to show their displeasure, theydidn't have to. In some places, such as Hampton, integration wouldcome fairly quickly and fairly quietly.
In other places, such asNewport News and Surry, integration would come only after almosttwo decades of struggle. The Supreme Court had ordered change, butit relied upon local people to ensure it happened. Oftentimes, thatwork had just begun.
"We simply could not lose," said civil rightslawyer Walker. "But it took us a long time to win."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times