Skip to content
One year after its landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the controversial decision, ordering schools across the country to desegregate "with all deliberate speed." But few first-graders who reported to school that fall would experience an integrated classroom. Virginia helped lead the South's defiance, churning up a maze of anti-desegregation policies that became known as "massive resistance." Yet even as the attorneys general of 17 Southern states met at Old Point Comfort to coordinate this opposition, black parents and attorneys prepared to answer back, filing one of Virginia's first and most bitterly contested cases in Newport News. Despite some notable exceptions, dual school systems segregated by race remained the rule in Hampton Roads until the Supreme Court, in a milestone 1968 decision against the New Kent County School Board, finally lost its patience. Even as York, James City, Isle of Wight, Gloucester and other localities began to comply, Newport News continued to search for ways to resist. When integration finally came, it was by no means painless. Many black communities lost the high schools that had once helped define their lives, and white parents gathered by the thousands to protest the busing of their children. In the end, however, the dire consequences predicted largely failed to materialize. Football teams, cheerleading squads and debate clubs quickly adjusted to their new, multi-colored hue. One young girl may have said it best: "If the parents would just stay out of it, the kids could get together." -- By Mark St. John Erickson
Officials worked around or created new laws to fight integration Despite the Brown v. Board decision many Virginians fought integration until the courts intervened, ordering an end to massive resistance. By Kim Root There were no riots. No real violence. No National Guardsmen escorting frightened students past sneering, jeering people. Virginia had its own way of dealing with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that called for public school desegregation. It was called "massive resistance." Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to open the door to equality. It didn't. Instead, the decision led to decades of battles in the classrooms and courthouses as lawyers and community members alike fought for schools that would no longer separate children by race. Some of the earliest and longest-running battles took place in Hampton Roads. The first black student at a white high school couldn't understand why a white teacher failed him on tests even when his answers were correct. A York County black girl mistakenly admitted to a white school was transferred to a black school once the error was realized. Called "a nigger," she thought people were saying her name - Anita - wrong. Hundreds of white Newport News students upset with being bused to newly integrated schools walked out of classes, some slamming books on the ground, others protesting harrassment by black students in the hallways. There might have been a court ruling, but that didn't mean desegregation would come easy. Except on military bases, where integration was the norm by the mid-1950s, the first black student didn't sit in the same classroom as a white student until 1959. Nearly a dozen more years would pass before large numbers of whites and blacks integrated. "We didn't think," says famed NAACP lawyer Oliver M. Hill Sr., "it was going to be as messy as it was." * * * * * In the fall of 1955 in Newport News, just a few months after the Supreme Court reaffirmed its Brown decision, NAACP lawyers Philip S. Walker and W. Hale Thompson walked with 10 black children and their parents to Thomas Jefferson elementary school on 31st Street off Jefferson Avenue. The Newport News schools' superintendent, R.O. Nelson, wouldn't let the children enroll. State law wouldn't allow it, he said. Instead, the city turned its newest white elementary school into a black school, insisting the change would address the problem. That wasn't enough for Walker. Eight months later, Walker and Thompson filed a federal lawsuit in Norfolk that charged the Newport News school district with failing to come up with a desegregation plan. Nearly 90 black children and their parents were plaintiffs in a suit that asked the school district to stop operating segregated schools. Civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall appeared in court to help argue the case. The case made Newport News one of the first communities in Virginia to face a legal challenge to its schools. Isle of Wight was another. Many more lawsuits would be filed in the years to come. State government leaders at first tried to put together a plan to ease into the desegregation process. The so-called Gray Plan, named for a state senator, encouraged tuition credits for white children who didn't want to go to integrated schools. It also amended the state's compulsory attendance law to provide that no child be required to attend an integrated school. Voters supported the plan in a special referendum, but it was never put into action. Instead, the General Assembly agreed to a series of laws aimed at avoiding integration altogether. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. called the effort "massive resistance." Byrd tried to get other Southern states to resist integration in the same fashion. Some did - in March 1956, 101 members of Congress signed the Byrd-authored Southern Manifesto, which asserted the right of states to ignore Brown. A month later, 17 attorneys general from the South met at Fort Monroe to discuss "unwarranted invasion(s) of state and municipal rights." "Virginia was the leader in massive resistance," says Brian Daugherity, a history instructor at the University of Richmond. "We were the capital of the confederacy. We led the South during the [Civil] War - there was a feeling that we would lead the South in this battle, too." But unlike other parts of the South, there was almost no serious violence involving desegregation in Virginia. Nothing like what happened in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 when the governor defied a segregation order and prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to send federal troops to ensure that black students would be allowed to attend an all-white high school. Here, the conflicts would mostly come in the courtrooms. The NAACP filed more lawsuits in Virginia than anywhere in the South. And the state fought back. The governor was given the power to withdraw funding and close schools that tried to comply with the Brown ruling. The city of Arlington had planned to begin desegregation in the fall of 1956, but caved to the power of the state government. When the courts ordered schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville and Warren County to integrate, Gov. Lindsay Almond Jr. promptly stepped in and closed them. Though private schools were hastily organized, more than 12,000 children were left without schools to attend. Mock classrooms sprang up in churches, storefronts and across kitchen tables. Some Norfolk students ended up attending public schools in Hampton. Massive resistance lasted three years before the state and federal courts put an end to it in 1959, and some schools at last began to desegregate. But in rural Prince Edward County, where one of the initial Brown cases had originated, the county Board of Supervisors refused to give any money to the school board, forcing the public schools to close altogether rather than desegregate. The schools would stay closed for five years. The end of massive resistance might have meant a step forward in the fight toward equality, but there were still plenty of steps back. "There was," says Virginia Tech history professor Peter Wallenstein, "no full steam ahead at any time." * * * * * After the courts' decision, Gov. Almond delivered a dramatic speech to the General Assembly saying that massive resistance had run its course and that the courts must be respected. But the NAACP's suit against Newport News' schools continued to drag on. Walker, one of the lawyers who filed the suit, says the city and the courts seemed to use any excuse - including Newport News' consolidation with Warwick County - to avoid desegregation. "A scare tactic," Walker called it. "They delayed and delayed and delayed." But if the sluggish desegregation effort in Newport News was the norm across the state, Hampton was an exception. Hampton was one of the few localities that desegregated without being told to by the courts and did so before other school systems. The school board wanted to follow the law, says Hunter Andrews, the board's chairman, later a state senator. Its members watched what was going on elsewhere and bided their time. "We couldn't do anything until the law was clarified," said Andrews, now 83 years old. "We had to comply with the law, but we were never dragged into federal court. We all worked together. We just all quietly worked together." Andrews and then-Superintendent C. Alton Lindsey, who is among those largely credited with Hampton's smooth full integration in the mid-1960s, raised a question to the rest of the school board members, recalls former member Doris Smith. Did the board want taxpayers' money going to fight a lawsuit, or did it want that money going for schoolbooks? No one wanted a fight. By then, the state had created the Pupil Placement Board on the heels of massive resistance's demise. The General Assembly had also agreed to private school tuition grants and a "freedom of choice" provision that gave students the right to pick the school they wanted to attend. In 1961, Hampton received its first application from a black student to attend all-white Hampton High School, and it won permission from the placement board for him to enroll. Fifteen-year-old Robert A. Rice Jr. was the son of a faculty member at Hampton Institute, now called Hampton University. On Sept. 5, with little fanfare, Robert walked to school flanked by his father and two other members of HI's faculty, along with the faculty members' white children. Robert walked inside with few problems - a few heckles, a lot of stares, some jostling in the hallways. "There was a large attitude adjustment period," Smith said. "There were people who were afraid their children were going to be hurt. And some of the other districts didn't like what Hampton was doing. But we didn't do it to get a prize." Meantime, freedom of choice was beginning to play out in other school systems. A year after the first black student enrolled at Hampton High School, a 6-year-old York County girl named Anita Smith walked into Grafton Bethel Elementary School holding her father's hand. Anita's very first day of school followed a lawsuit brought against the school district by her family and 18 other black families. Her father, Benjamin Smith, had initially been allowed to register his daughter at Grafton Bethel because the staff thought the family - with their sand-colored skin - was Brazilian. When school officials realized Anita was black, they changed their minds. In court, the defense claimed that the county had transferred Anita to relieve overcrowding. But she was the only student who was moved. "This is discrimination of the grossest kind," U.S. District Court Judge Walter Hoffman said, and ordered Anita admitted. Even in Newport News, the racial barrier was breaking down. In 1963, a 10th grader named Eric Burden agreed to leave all-black Huntington High and go to Newport News High. Burden had butterflies in his stomach on his first day. His heart pounded. He worried about how he'd be treated. But he didn't encounter racial slights from any of his fellow students during his three years there. Only once, he recalls today, did he hear of a fight between blacks and whites in the hallways. His friends on the football team helped him make the transition. Not so for Anita Smith. "The students treated me fine until they found out I was a Negro," says the now-47-year-old Anita Smith Howard, who lives in Arlington, Texas. "When they found out I was a Negro, they abandoned me ... The kids started calling me the N-word, but I never knew what they meant. They'd say 'a nigger, a nigger' and I didn't understand. I thought they were saying my name wrong." * * * * * A different kind of resistance took place in Surry County when, in the summer of 1963, seven black children applied through the state Pupil Placement Board to attend the white schools. They were accepted. But it turned out to mean nothing. Come Labor Day, those students couldn't go to the white school because the school didn't open - the school board simply shut the schools. White leaders in the county created the Surry County Educational Foundation and quickly formed a private school system to avoid integration. The NAACP and the childrens' parents sued, unsuccessfully, to keep the white schools open. Unlike Prince Edward County, where all public schools remained closed until 1964, Surry school officials continued to operate the black public schools while the white schools were closed. Or, as then-Superintendent M.B. Joyner put it in a newspaper article, the white schools were not "closing - we just are not opening the doors." Nearly 450 students registered to attend the foundation's private schools in old school buildings in Claremont, Dendron and Surry. All 22 white public school teachers resigned their jobs and were given new ones at the private schools. Despite the fact that the schools were for white students only, state tuition grants paid $250 to $255 for each student. Franz Von Schilling, who had retired in Surry County after a globe-trotting career, became known as the "Great White Father" in the early 1960s after helping found Surry's whites-only private schools. Many white parents responded. John Marilla was a Surry resident who sent his eldest daughter to the newly formed Surry Academy. Later, after the public schools were integrated in 1970, he became one of the first white parents to send children back. But in the 1960s, he says now, he was just doing what all the other white parents were doing. "It was more of a follow-the-leader-type thing," Marilla says. "I wasn't a crusader and didn't want to make any waves." In nearby Isle of Wight County, a group of parents formed an education foundation and, in 1967, opened Isle of Wight Academy, a whites-only, private K-12 school. Some Gloucester County parents sent their children to York Academy in King and Queen County. In Chuckatuck, Sam Glasscock, later elected a state delegate, sent his children to the integrated schools in Suffolk. His wife's friends questioned why the couple didn't send their children to the white academies, like everyone else. But Glasscock was confident in his decision. "I thought it was the way the world was supposed to work," Glasscock explains now. "It's part of reality." Not all black students wanted to go to the white schools, says Fred Carter, who graduated from T.C. Walker School, Gloucester County's school for blacks, in 1961. Race wasn't a factor inside the safe school environment at T.C. Walker, where all students were welcome and the desire for excellence was drilled in by the teachers. "It was instilled in us that you weren't going to get a break in the world, but you're going to get one here," Carter remembers. During the late-1950s, well before Gloucester was fully integrated in 1968, Carter saw evidence of the black schools being treated less fairly than the white ones. When the polio boosters were given out at school, he says, the nurses ran out at the white school - so the black students didn't get them. * * * * * In 1964, the landmark Civil Rights Act began opening the door for even more civil rights victories in the schools. Among its bans on different forms of discrimination, the act authorized systematic federal enforcement of Brown and pushed the Supreme Court to finally move beyond its 10-year order to desegregate the schools "with all deliberate speed." The following year, an NAACP leader named Calvin Green became frustrated at New Kent County's failure to integrate its schools. Blacks and whites were spread evenly throughout the county, but no blacks attended white schools. "It was obvious that it was racism that was causing the situation," says Daugherity, the University of Richmond history instructor. Green filed suit against the county school board on behalf of his 8-year-old son and a dozen other children. Three years later, the Supreme Court took up the case. By then, the high court had become impatient at the slow pace of desegregation. With the New Kent case, the justices finally demanded that school districts create unitary school districts with no separate schools for blacks and whites. The ruling also required schools to submit plans to federal district courts that would assess whether schools had desegregated. The court, which by then had become more liberal and had Thurgood Marshall on the bench, called for a system "without a 'white' school and a 'Negro' school, but just schools." It ended the "freedom of choice" concept that never really worked - some students were simply choosing to attend segregated schools. It also placed the responsibility for desegregation on local school boards rather than forcing black parents to demand change. "This deliberate perpetuation of the unconstitutional dual system can only have compounded the harm of such a system," the court said. "Such delays are no longer tolerable ... The time for mere 'deliberate speed' has run out." Within the year, public school segregation in Virginia and elsewhere began to collapse. In Williamsburg, where the first black students began attending white schools in 1964, the racial ratio was roughly 50-50 by 1968. Henry A. Renz, superintendent for the Williamsburg-James City County system, noted that although there had been some spats with racial overtones, they were "incidents you would expect to find at any school, integrated or not, except that they happened to involve white and Negro students." Isle of Wight County, which had only seen a handful of black students attend white schools under freedom of choice plans, began full integration in 1969. Marcia Brown Williams began 10th grade in the integrated Smithfield High School after completing ninth grade at the all-black Westside High School. She doesn't remember much fuss about the races coming together in the hallways. "There were no riots. There was no petitioning," Williams remembers today. "I grew up thinking there was a white side of town and a black side of town. By the time we were in 12th grade, we were having integrated parties." Williams became co-captain of the cheerleaders. The other co-captain was white. Yet in Newport News and other communities in Virginia, more years passed before their school systems would accept complete integration. In July 1970, the NAACP finally filed the lawsuit that forced Newport News to desegregate. The first fully integrated Newport News schools were set to open for class in the fall of 1971. But with full compliance, a new problem was heating up in the school systems across the country. Busing brought parents into the fray like nothing else. * * * * * Integrate now, the Supreme Court said in its Green v. New Kent decision. For many schools, that would be easier said than done. After the ruling, schools had to come up with desegregation plans, redraw school districts, set up busing zones and figure out how to best mix black and white students. The result was school walkouts, protests and even more tension among students as the status quo was ripped out from under them. U.S. Rep. G. William Whitehurst said busing was causing more alienation among Americans than anything since the Civil War. In Hampton, eight sets of parents whose children had been assigned to a school not to their liking filed a suit against the school board, charging it with the illegal gerrymandering of high school attendance zones. The parents claimed that they were being forced to send their children into a school zone comprised of mainly low socio-economic students. A federal judge in Norfolk threw the suit out. In 1971, the Supreme Court upheld the use of busing as a means of desegregating public schools. District courts began ordering busing, but that only made people resist more. Many parents lashed out against the move, which they saw as a means of degrading neighborhood schools. Lawsuits began piling up as parents - mostly white parents - argued that busing was an infringement on the rights of schoolchildren. One Hampton parent filed suit claiming that his daughter shouldn't have to ride a bus because she got car sick. Parents started packing school board and city council meetings. In August, more than 1,000 parents filled a Hampton School Board meeting to protest busing. A month later, seven times that number filled the Langley Field Speedway as Hampton and Newport News residents rallied against forced busing. A national group called Save Our Neighborhood Schools became a part of the local protests. William F. Haskins, the president of the 4,000-member Peninsula chapter, pledged to keep his son home when school opened that fall in Newport News. "It took the NAACP 18 years to bring this about," Haskins told the crowd gathered for the carnival-like event, according to press reports. "And it's been done because you were willing to sit back and rest on your laurels and say it couldn't happen here." Now a city councilman, Haskins says today that race was never an issue for the organization. Preserving neighborhood schools was. "It wasn't about black and white," recalls Haskins, who later sent his children to public schools anyway. "It was an organization against forced busing." The first black principal at Newport News' Ferguson High School, who remembers seeing neon anti-busing signs scattered around town, disagrees. The way Ross Hines remembers it, the group worried that the quality of the former black schools their children might have to attend would be inferior. Parents fretted about mixing the races, he said. "It wasn't the bus that was the issue," said Hines, who once used a school bus to block the school driveway from parents trying to stage a walkout. "It was what was at the end of the line." The black high schools in Newport News - Huntington and Carver high schools - became middle schools, ending their decades-long roles as centers in the black community. Students were shipped from one end of the city to the other as the school systems tried to keep 60 percent white, 40 percent black in each school. Only the youngest elementary school students were safe from busing. Thaddeus Hollomon had been happy at all-black Huntington High, where he played in the marching band and participated in student government. He didn't want to go to previously all-white Menchville High. When he did, his grades slumped. He felt unwanted. "The community was in an uproar," Hollomon said. "It was not a welcoming and warm environment we were going into." * * * * * Integration continued, sometimes smoothly, sometimes not, and sometimes for years after most localities had accepted it. Despite the success of Surry County's black residents in wresting political control of the county, integration didn't happen there until after 1975. Most white parents kept their children at the private, all-white Surry Academy. They began returning to the public schools only after the new county leaders began pumping more money into public education. Busing continued to be an issue in Newport News until the mid-1970s. Stories of pilfered lunch money, stolen books and hallway fights were common. Parents fearing outbreaks of violence drove their children to school instead of putting them on buses. Black students, in particular, became young combatants in a second Civil War, says Wallenstein, the Virginia Tech history professor. But students of all races were affected. And some of them just wanted their parents to shut up. "If the parents would just stay out it," Carver Intermediate student Barbara Parker said in 1971, "the kids could get together." It wouldn't be that easy. The emotions raised by the desegregation of public schools would run strong in many neighborhoods for years to come. "Many people to this day don't forgive me for their child being in a class with black children," says Doris Smith, the former Hampton School Board member who pushed for integration there. "It doesn't bother me that they don't forgive me. It's enough that I forgive them." With reporting by Ed Lebow, Patrick Lynch, Keith Rushing and Beverly Williams.