50 Years Ago On February 2, 2009

February 2, 2009 marks a little known anniversary in Northern Virginia.
My father was brought home from the hospital to Fairfax County in 1944.  Fairfax County was a different place back then.  It was a rural county in transition.  He went to Fairfax County Public Schools.  Back then, the northern part of Mt. Vernon was the growth part of the County and he had to attend third grade in auxillary school made up of old barracks since demolished in Ft. Hunt Park.  My uncle attended school in the Ft. Hunt Headquarters building.  After Hollin Hall Elementary School was completed, they finished elementary school there.  Every morning the children said the Lord’s Prayer, engaged in Bible study and sang “Jesus Loves Me.”  Having grown up in a secular jewish household of a couple of ex-Brooklynites it was uncomfortable to say the least.
My father went on to finish at Mt. Vernon High School where he graduated in 1962.  But one thing was missing – African Americans.  Back then and today, the Mt. Vernon area has the highest percentage African-Americans in the County.  The neighborhood of Gum Springs was founded  by some of George Washington’s freed slaves.  Former slave also established communities just outside Gunston Hall on Mason Neck and in other parts of the County.  My father met his first African American classmate when he attended college in Michigan although he is proud of having marginally participated in training  “Freedom Riders” at the Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church who desegregated the interstate bus system in 1961.
Brown v. Board of Education was issued on May 17, 1954.  Two months later, Fairfax County opened a brand new African American-only high school – Luther Jackson in Merrifield.  Before this was built, all Fairfax County’s African American kids had to attend high school in Washington, D.C. or the Manassas Industrial School in Prince William County.  In the days before interstates this sometimes meant boarding with families who lived closer or paying tuition.  In Mt. Vernon, an antique bus ran kids from Arcturus to Manassas.  There were also some black elementary schools schools across the county, including one in Gum Springs.  My grandfather used to say that it did not have indoor plumbing.

Virginia Democratic U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd led the charge against desegregation and he himself coined the phrase “massive resistance.” Massive resistance exploded across Virginia.  As one of the early warning shots to Northern Virginia, the General Assembly adopted laws prohibiting any integrated school from receiving state funds.
In Prince Edward County, they closed the public schools from 1958-1964 and set up private schools that acted as de facto public schools rather than integrate. My mother was a student at Longwood College in Farmville in Prince Edward County, Virginia during the last two years of that period.  She took part in protests that brought attention to their outrageous behavior.  Other private “segregation academies” were set up all across Virginia.
In 1958, The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered several Virginia school systems to integrate.  Virginia Governor Lindsay Almond ordered the school systems to close.  In January, 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court declared most of the General Assembly’s anti-desegregation legislation unconstitutional and the Governor capitulated.  However, Governor Almond was not rewarded and Senator Byrd and his organization later tried to block his appointment as a federal judge after he was nominated by President John F. Kennedy.
On February 2, 1959, Arlington County because the first jurisdiction in Virginia to admit blacks to its public schools when four black started to attend an all-white junior high school.  In 1960, a U.S. District Court ordered Fairfax County to comply and in September, 1960 three blacks were admitted – one to Groveton High School (next to Mt. Vernon) and two into James Madison High School.
Did that solve all the problems?  Any African American wanting to attend a Fairfax County Public School had to submit a transfer application that was reviewed and approved by the School Board – a requirement that white transfer students did not have to face. The Fairfax County School Board eventually approved a plan, under court order, that called for the schools to be desegregated one grade at a time until all grades were integrated in 1971.
Racism also lived on – on November 30, 1960, the Fairfax County School Board voted to prohibit desegregated interscholastic athletics.  This policy was reversed after a 2,000 student petition and PTA lobbying.
After more court battles, primarily funded by the NAACP, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Fairfax County to stop its foot-dragging and complete integration was in place by the 1965-66 school year.  The original Fairfax County plan’s time frame was cut in half – still 11 years after Brown v. Board of Education and seven years after Arlington County implemented desegregation voluntarily.
There were still other issues – the School Board was “worried” about black teachers having to teach white students and the federal government even awarded Fairfax County a $53,000 grant to train teachers for this.
My grandparents fought in the heat of these battles.  Having moved to Dunn Loring in 1935 and felt the sting of bigotry by a majority inflicted on a minority ending government endorsed discrimination was important to them.  These issues also were a big part of the transformation of the Virginia Democratic Party into its modern composition today.
Ten years after complete integration in Fairfax County, I started attending kindergarden at Hollin Hall Elementary School in 1975.  There were African Americans in my classes all the way through high school.  The blank slate of childhood is a marvelous thing.  As a child, it had never occurred to me that it had ever been another way.  While we accomplished an incredible achievement electing Barack Obama President this year, it is always important to remember where we have come from – even here in Fairfax County.