Reflecting on the past to inform the future

jojacobs@tidewaterreview.com

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Brian Daugherity is a program co-director.

Former students and faculty brought the experiences of desegregation out of history books and into the flesh for teachers from around the country at a panel at George W. Watkins Elementary School.

Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional in 1954, cracked open the door for black and white children to attend school together.

Despite the ruling, a period of Massive Resistance policies — when cities across the South refused to integrate — meant real change in Virginia did not take place for close to a decade after the Brown decision.

Some black students began to trickle into the county's white-only New Kent School, now the historic New Kent High School, through the freedom of choice plan, a program in which students could choose to attend either a white or black school, in the late 1960s.

Black students who left behind the black-only George W. Watkins School, now an elementary school, to enter into the arched brick entry of New Kent School, pull open the double doors and take a seat before the classroom's chalkboard sought greater opportunity and found resistance along the way.

"All levels of the school had racism," Carlton Anderson said. "From the time you stepped on the bus until you got off the bus."

Anderson was one of seven former students, teachers and administrators who attended New Kent County Schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s and gathered to share their experiences on the panel.

Sylvia Hathaway, another former student who graduated in 1968, recalled how black students sat together during her prom, and that one white friend was taken out of the school after black students arrived while another white friend felt pressure from the community to avoid interaction with black students.

Panelists spoke before an audience of close to 40 teachers from 25 states. The teachers, predominately social studies teachers who teach sixth to 12th grade, heard the experiences of people alive during the Civil Rights era to improve their own instruction for their students, Brian Daugherity said.

Daugherity is a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who is a co-director of "The Long Road from Brown: School Desegregation in Virginia", the history and culture workshop series that brought the teachers to New Kent July 27.

The workshop series, which includes lectures and trips to other parts of the state with a connection to the Civil Rights era, has been to New Kent before.

Sports were a big part of student life at both George W. Watkins School and New Kent School. The former offered just baseball while the latter offered a wider variety of games.

Hathaway was the first black girl to play on New Kent School's softball team. While she proved her skills in practice sessions, she never started and rarely got the chance to play. On the bus that carried the team to games, teammates would avoid sitting near her, she said.

Green vs. New Kent

In 1968, progress moved a little more quickly with the U.S. Supreme Court case Green vs. County School Board of New Kent County. The court declared the county's freedom of choice plan wasn't sufficiently compliant with the federal mandate to desegregate schools make 14 years earlier.

Mary Green, whose husband Calvin Green sued the county, was a teacher at George W. Watkins School at the time of the case. Her contract wasn't renewed, prompting her departure from the job.

While Green, who was among the panelists, didn't suggest a connection, others on the panel did.

"If you made trouble you or somebody else in your family had to pay for that," said Hathaway, who graduated in the New Kent School's first class to include black students.

The court decision forced integration with guidelines on acceptable black-to-white student and faculty ratios and total equality in transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities. Freed of choice plans were unanimously rejected, according to the Virginia Historical Society.

The county integrated schools two years later.

"It wasn't easy but by 1970 it was a whole lot better," Hathaway said.

In the school

The initial overtures of acceptance appeared to happen for some former students on the playing field.

Sports were the only break from harassment during the school day for former student Burrell Pollard. Class time consisted of frequent name-calling, but game time brought out a different attitude among some white students.

"The same guy who would call you the n-bomb during class time, you played with him in sports and it was like nothing happened," Pollard said. "It was like a different place."

White students may have accepted their new black peers due in part to their athletic ability, said Howard Ormond, who was a district faculty member at the time.

While some former students recounted instances of racism from teachers, student-to-student issues sometimes were a mystery to faculty, Edward Baggett, a teacher at the time, said.

Baggett recalled learning about student interactions from students themselves, such as the practice of black students going to the water fountain in pairs to avoid getting their faces pushed into the fountain.

Integration brought an influx of young teachers. The district brought teachers together from both the black and white schools to discuss ways to navigate race relations and what kind backgrounds the students came from before integration, which may have helped smooth the transition, Ormond said.

Looking to the future

Some panelists and program officials framed the event as a way to remember American history to build a brighter future.

"We don't want that to reoccur in this country," Ormond said.

The effort to build racial equality is an ongoing effort, and teachers who have participated in the program have drawn parallels between the Civil Rights era and Black Lives Matter, Old Dominion University professor and workshop co-director Yonghee Suh said.

"American is still not in a position to have a conversation about racism," said former student Larry Woodson, who added social media abuses contribute to a lack of empathy needed to address racial issues.

In the current political climate, the workshop assumes greater importance as it outlines the challenges faced in the past to inform students. These students will be the future leaders who will face the continual work to address persistent racism in society, Suh said.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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