Virginia Voices of Integration: Massive resistance to school desegregation
In the first of a five-part series, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi presents a timeline of Virginia's massive resistance policies, and the struggle to desegregate public schools in the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville.
In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education – but Black children in Virginia would not set foot in formerly all-white schools until five years later. In those intervening years, the Virginia state government, led by Governor J. Lindsay Almond, threw itself into direct conflict with the federal government in an attempt to prevent integration.
J. LINDSAY ALMOND: I will never voluntarily yield to that which I am unalterably convinced will destroy our public school system.
But African American parents all over the state, determined for their children to receive the best education possible, petitioned local school boards for their kids to be transferred to white schools – facilities that were funded in part by their tax dollars and often closer to home than the Black schools.
In a special session in 1956, the General Assembly passed a 13-bill package that would give teeth to the state's policy of Massive Resistance to integration – including cutting state funding to any white school that admitted Black students. Then, in 1957, one of the attorneys who had argued against Brown v. Board of Education in the Supreme Court – J. Lindsay Almond – was elected governor.
By then, Oliver W. Hill and his team of NAACP attorneys had already filed lawsuits on behalf of students in Charlottesville and other localities. In 1958, child plaintiffs in Warren County joined the fight, and that September, U.S. District Court Judge John Paul ordered the school boards in both localities to admit the handful of Black students.
In response, as the late Washington & Lee Professor Ted DeLaney explained in a 2018 interview –
TED DELANEY: Almond orders the closure of schools in three Virginia locales, Charlottesville being one of them, Warren County being the other, and Norfolk being the third one.
Local parent groups immediately established makeshift private schools for many of the thousands of displaced white students. The Black students trying to gain admittance to the now-closed schools were tutored in administrative buildings or left the state to attend schools in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.
Public opinion on the school closures varied among both Black and white residents.
Randolph Louis White, one of the few Black newspaper owners in the state at that time, wrote in an editorial in the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune, "The only redeeming feature we can see in the whole silly mess is the fact that hundreds of white parents are beginning to realize the utter futility of the program foisted upon them by so-called leaders, who, as time is proving, have 'sold them down the river' in a vain attempt to defy the Hand of Time."
A white man and a white high school student in Charlottesville who spoke to WSLS-TV reporters clearly had differing feelings on the subject, although it's worth noting that very few white Virginians at the time would go so far as to publicly endorse integration.
WHITE MAN: To us, we are not particularly – we hold no brief for segregation or integration. We are anxious that the, that our children continue their education.
WHITE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: All I've got to say is I'm a segregationist by a long ways, and I'll tell you, I'm very staunch on the deal … and I'm leaving, going to private school this year because of it.
Then, in January of 1958, after schools in the three localities had been closed for four months –
DELANEY: A federal judge rules that as governor of Virginia, you don't have that authority. Those schools will be reopened. Harry Byrd wants Almond to dig his heels in and go to jail on principle. Almond is not willing to go to jail, and so those three sets of schools are reopened.
In February, Black students entered formerly all-white public schools for the first time in Arlington, Norfolk, and Warren County.
JAMES M. KILBY: And then that big day for us. [chuckles] February the 18th, 1959.
The Reverend James M. Kilby is one of the then-students who you'll hear more from later in this series.
KILBY: Twenty-two Black students enter Warren County High School, and here's my name, James M. Kilby is one of the first Black students. And white students boycotted the opening of that school, opting instead to attend private school.
While Massive Resistance had been overthrown, this was just the beginning for the young girls and boys who broke the color barrier in schools throughout the Shenandoah Valley, Charlottesville, and beyond. Their stories, which will be shared in the next four installments of this series, illustrate a wide range of experiences – each uniquely shaped by their age, gender, personal worldview, family background, and the social climate of their hometowns and white counterparts.
WMRA would like to thank the University of Virginia, Washington & Lee University, and Massanutten Regional libraries for access to their archives that made this series possible.
Here's a full list of research sources for the series:
- The collection of interviews of Ted DeLaney housed at Washington and Lee University, Special Collections
- The University of Virginia Library WSLS news film archive
- The newspaper archive of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune housed at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia
- The Massanutten Regional Library Genealogy & Local History Room archives of local yearbooks and The Daily News-Record
- Ancestry.com's archive of local yearbooks
- Wit, Will & Walls (Cultural Innovations Inc., 2002) by Dr. Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin
- The Forever Fight (Dorrance Publishing Co., 1998) by Rev. James M. Kilby
- The Moderates' Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 1998), edited by Matthew D. Lassiter and Andrew B. Lewis.
- The Making of Massive Resistance (The University of North Carolina Press, 1962) by Robbins L. Gates
- Virginia's Massive Resistance (Indiana University Press, 1961) by Benjamin Muse