Arlington Public Schools staged a reunion of sorts on Feb. 2, assembling citizens who’d once viewed one another only across the racial divide.
The panelists’ talk at the Stratford building marking the 57th anniversary of our state’s school integration was historic, educational and touching.
Three of four “local heroes,” as they were called by School Board Chair Emma Violand Sanchez, returned to their junior high, one for the first time since that high drama nearly six decades ago.
Gravitas for the evening commemoration (following daytime discussions for students in the H-B Woodlawn program) came from Sen. Tim Kaine via video.
The broader picture—fascinating political tactics used by black and white Arlington activists to overcome Virginia’s “massive resistance” to integration in the 1950s– was driven home by the 2001 Arlington Educational Television documentary “It’s Just Me.” It showcased how white liberals risked professional reputations to link arms with African-Americans with whom many had had virtually no social contact.
It wasn’t that blacks coveted having their kids learn alongside whites, one black parent said–they wanted the best-paid teachers and learning tools. Blacks resented being bussed past Washington-Lee High School to the South Arlington, and for being excluded from Bernie’s Pony Ring at Lyon Village.
Before the courts and governor ordered the integration in 1958, Arlington prepared. Four black seventh-graders were selected out of 30 based on achievements and psychological makeup.
“I never asked why my parents wanted me to do it,” recalled Michael Jones.
On that tense Feb. 2, 1959, Lance Newman remembered, Jones’ “father dropped us off on Old Dominion Drive where there was a ton of cops.” After a stop at the principal’s office, the four were split into pairs. When Newman arrived in math class, “the door opened and there was tension and silence as they introduced us.” When the period changed, he recalled “a mass of humanity, all white, and curious stares.”
Ron Deskins was flummoxed that a reporter camped in his house that morning. “I didn’t expect violence like Little Rock,” he said, acknowledging the white student volunteer guides who ate lunch with the newcomers. “There were no public displays of affection or animus,” but a few later “made it their business to try to make our lives miserable but didn’t succeed.”
None of the four 12-year-olds then realized the national significance of their action. They viewed it like a day job, after which they returned to real friends on the neighborhood playground.
What they couldn’t know was that the Stratford staff had also prepared. An advance assembly was called to ask which teachers would host the pioneer students. “I’m proud I said yes, but to me was just another day,” recalled former teacher Martha Ann Miller, age 104. At a neighboring house, nervous parents gathered to monitor the action.
All four children went on to graduate from Washington-Lee. Newman got a degree in electronic engineering in California and worked for Aerospace Corp. Deskins dabbled in college and spent 34 years as a Fairfax County fireman. Jones attended Howard and Fordham universities, did an Army stint in Vietnam, sold insurance and worked for the CIA.
Newman confided that he prepared for English class by writing his best “Alfred Lord Tennyson” style. But after seeing the quality of his classmates’ work, he realized “they were just as dumb as I was.”
Straight outta “Mad Men” department: a cool local roadside attraction.
Next time you drive west on Wilson Blvd., just before crossing the Arlington line to Seven Corners, you can be transported to the 1950s via the sign for the “Wilson Plaza Shopping Center.” Labeling a strip that houses mostly Vietnamese restaurants, beauty shops and groceries, the sign deploys a typeface and playful design you’d expect from an old Jack Lemmon technicolor movie poster.
I asked a couple of shop owners whether the landlord might consider updating the poignant vestige of the Eisenhower era. No, they said, he’s not a big spender.