Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpA most local of local histories is the new personalized recounting of the “Integration of Wakefield High School.”

The paperback published by the scholarship-giving Wakefield High School Education Foundation offers powerful memories of one of Arlington’s historic transitions – some so painful for participants it took decades of time’s passage to surface them.

Organized by former school board member Conchita Mitchell (Wakefield Class of ‘66) and Millie Mohler Lawson (Class of ’63) along with fellow alumni and current sociology students, the booklet printed in Wakefield’s “Warrior Nation” green is fresh with intimate testimony and faded black-and-white yearbook photos.

The text captures drama set in motion by the national, state and local forces of school desegregation – the challenges and resistance thereto – when the all-black Hoffman-Boston High was blended into decade-old, all-white Wakefield.

The 250 kids from Hoffman-Boston went from a class of 55 to one of 400. “Because the black population in Arlington was small, the teachers had taught many members of families – sisters, brothers, cousins,” says the introduction. “They had high expectations and accepted no excuse for bad behavior.”

Principal George Richardson declared, “We weren’t preparing our students for Wakefield. We were preparing them for life.” When Richardson was made deputy principal at Wakefield, he got along with his direct boss but “did not feel it was as easy to work with the superintendent of schools [Ray Reid], who he felt was less accepting and collegial.”

Isaac Brooks, ’65, recalls feeling that academically, “Much of what was covered at Wakefield had already been covered at Hoffman-Boston.” He spoke of being uncomfortable when Wakefield’s white kids were curious to touch his hair.

Preston Green, ’67, remembers a metal shop teacher apologizing because he “wasn’t sure how to teach blacks.” A white kid in electronics class said he didn’t like blacks – his parents were in the American Nazi Party. Walter Reed Drive, Green recalls, was the dividing line between the races.

Sports was the milieu for much tension; a 1956 Virginia Assembly resolution had banned interracial teams. Wrestler and football player Larry Randall, ’65, the first black student on a Wakefield sports team, recalls “hearing racial comments and insults from the stands at Fairfax and Falls Church high schools.”

Clayton “Cookie” Powell, ’65, recalls basketball referees calling imaginary fouls on black players, but the coaches would not complain.

Fascinating memories from white alumni: Glen Bayless, ’64, whose father ran for county board on a desegregation platform in 1953, recalls receiving hate calls. He played on the basketball team that went to state finals his senior year, having already known black teammates through previous “illegal scrimmages.”

Two Jewish brothers, Jim and Howard Bregman, ’60 and ‘64, grew up in a white family that operated a grocery store serving black customers in Green Valley. They “played with and visited with the homes of their black neighbors but were bussed out of Green Valley to go to school.” The Bregmans were disappointed when the Nauck community produced a photo history without mentioning their store.

The book offers a useful timeline of desegregation. But the true human flavor comes across when the narrative follows these pioneers into adult life, where they meet the whole panoply of fates.

These alums must be heartened to see the current student body at Wakefield: 16 percent white, 23 percent black, 10 percent Asian, and 48 percent Latino.