Virginia Voices of Integration: Harrisonburg
In the fourth of a five-part series, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi talks to two of the earliest African American graduates of Harrisonburg High School – one of many school districts throughout Virginia that slid more quietly into compliance with desegregation after the failure of Massive Resistance.
The Lucy F. Simms School, named after the legendary Harrisonburg educator, was built in the late '30s to serve the African American students of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Karen Sue Robinson – maiden name Mason – was among its last attendees before it shut down in 1965, and all its students were transferred to formerly all-white schools.
KAREN SUE ROBINSON: At the time I was at Simms, I felt safe, and I felt loved, that people loved us. 'Cause you got to know all the families, the children's families, most of them.
She was born near the school on Johnson Street – smack dab in the middle of 13 children.
A year behind Robinson in school was Howard Stevens, the oldest of eight children.
HOWARD STEVENS: We didn't have very much money, but we didn't really care. We always had plenty of food to eat. We always had clean clothing, you know, to wear to school and all that … the bottom line is that, you know, you make the best of what you had. And that's what we did.
He particularly remembers his second grade teacher – Mary Awkard Fairfax, whom he knew as Miss Awkard.
STEVENS: She would be a great teacher today. She would be a great teacher 400 years from now, and she was a great teacher then, because she expected excellence, she showed you what to do, and she did not accept anything less than your personal best … It was a very good education, and we were well prepared, in my opinion, when we went to Harrisonburg High School.
In 1964, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County adopted a "freedom of choice plan" in the public schools that allowed Black students to volunteer to go to white schools a year ahead of full integration. Stevens, who had always dreamed of playing football, jumped at the opportunity, as there was no football team at Simms. His parents weren't so keen on the idea.
STEVENS: Oh, Mom wasn't really excited about it … And I told her that I volunteered, and she kind of nixed that, you know – it's the incessant, the squeaky wheel gets the oil, so she finally said "I don't care if you go get hit by a trailer truck. Yes." … I don't think she was worried for my safety. I think, more than anything, it was change. It was different, and I'm not sure she wanted me to be on the vanguard of that change.
Stevens said he hadn't been following any of the legal battles over school desegregation – he was more concerned with day-to-day life, and looking after his younger siblings. So he arrived at Harrisonburg High as a "naive" 14-year-old, in his words.
Despite being one of the smallest players when he got to the varsity team, the five-foot-five Stevens quickly made a name for himself as an outstanding runner. A photo of him on the Daily News-Record sports page from September 4, 1965 is captioned "Streak on the Loose – Harrisonburg halfback Howard Stevens (42) sprints away from a Montevideo tackler on a 40-yard punt return."
Stevens acknowledged the social benefits of being a star athlete.
STEVENS: I think my experience was a little bit better, maybe, than some, because of my success football-wise. I think it opened some doors and kind of, you know, greased a few skids that may not have been greased had I not been as good a football player.
Robinson’s experience was different. As a student at Simms, she went to dances, sang in the choir, and cheered. But that stopped when she and the rest of the students at Simms were forced to transfer to Harrisonburg High in 1965, when she was a rising junior.
ROBINSON: I didn't want to go out there … Because the whites and blacks didn't get along that much … The way they acted when we were going up there, just mean to us. And called us names and stuff.
She watched other Black girls try out for the cheer team and all get rejected. One of the few redeeming features there was a teacher, Ms. Barbara Blakey, who had previously taught at Simms.
ROBINSON: That's all she did was preach about going to college, and staying out of trouble. She was my English teacher at Simms, and then went to Harrisonburg High. I took a typing class under her.
She graduated in 1967, moved to Connecticut, got married, and started a family. Stevens graduated in 1968, and went to Randolph-Macon College for two years –
STEVENS: … which is a Division III college, and you don't really get to the NFL, generally, from a Division III college at that time.
That wasn't about to stop him, though. His coach got a job at the University of Louisville, and Stevens followed him there –
STEVENS: … and had a couple of wonderful years. Made All-American.
In 1972, he married Joyce Ritchie, who he'd met at Harrisonburg High. And then, in 1973 – in the 16th round of the NFL draft – Stevens was picked up by the New Orleans Saints. Two years later, he was traded to the Baltimore Colts, where he helped them win three Eastern Division titles as a running back and kick returner. After football, Stevens went on to a career in financial services.
STEVENS: People ask me, "are you having a good day today?" I say, "I have a good day every day!" Some days are better than others, but I have a good day everyday. My wife's okay, my kids are okay, my grandkids are okay. Come on world, let's go!
In the next and final installment of this series, we'll hear more from Stevens and all the other interviewees about what they hope future generations take away from their experiences of desegregating public schools.