Local Commentary

Editorial: When F.C. Schools First Integrated

It’s already that time again. School doesn’t begin after Labor Day weekend. But these days, it begins when football practices kick off in early August, and in the coming week, as new teachers and staff members arrive and are introduced to their classrooms and, in the case of Falls Church, to the community. Swag bags filled with goodies donated by local businesses and civic organizations have already been assembled for delivery to the eagerly-awaited new hires.

What will the new school year bring? Who will dazzle at the high school musical or on the basketball court? How many more scholastic, artistic, robotic and athletic championships will be racked up? How much learning, dialogue, character growth and fun, things not so easy to measure by trophies, will occur?

The News-Press has been proud of its relentless support for the Falls Church City Public Schools over almost two decades now, efforts that have been recognized by three, not two as earlier reported, Virginia School Board Association Media Honor Roll citations.

With all our editorial support, advocating for budgets and reporting on the meritorious accomplishments of the schools, collectively, and their students, one of our generally overlooked contributions was the extraordinary, independent research effort undertaken in 2005 to tell the real story of the racial integration of the Falls Church City Public Schools beginning with the Brown Vs. Board of Education ruling in 1955.

Our undertaking was timed with the opening of the new Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, named by a 4-3 vote of the School Board (four for Henderson, three for Eleanor Roosevelt) for an early African-American civic activist and educator from Falls Church.

A young News-Press reporter, Darien Bates, who’s gone on to run his own successful theater marketing firm in New York City, was assigned by our editor to take all the time he needed to research old Falls Church School Board archives and minutes of meetings, to interview witnesses to the events and otherwise pull the story together.

The result was a major two-part series in the Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, 2005 editions of the News-Press.

It turned up some big surprises, including the fact that the single greatest hero on behalf of the integration of the City’s schools was a School Board president named John Alvin Johnson, a tireless advocate for adequate school funding since being appointed to the School Board in 1949, who began advocating for integration immediately following the Supreme Court ruling.

No one else on the Falls Church School Board was ready to go along, however. Either they actively opposed the idea, vowing to join the resistance organized by then Gov. Thomas Stanley and Sen. Harry F. Byrd, or they chose to defer any bold decision pending futile inquiries to the state.

While in Prince Edward County, public schools were closed for five years to resist integration, in Falls Church it was not until 1961 that it began to happen.

The full story can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2.