Harrisonburg's Role in Virginia School Integration

Mar 22, 2019

Costella Forney, now a pastor at Harrisonburg's John Wesley United Methodist Church, remembers helping to integrate Spotswood Elementary School. She was in 7th grade.
Credit Andrew Jenner

In the first report in this series, we heard about the groundbreaking judicial rulings ordering school integration in Virginia that earned Harrisonburg’s federal courthouse a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. In his second report, WMRA’s Andrew Jenner looks at how that process unfolded.

After Judge John Paul ordered Charlottesville schools to integrate by the fall of 1956, Virginia dug in its heels.

BRIAN DAUGHERITY: The state government responds to this threat of school desegregation by passing a whole slew of new laws that were essentially meant to delay the process of school desegregation in the state of Virginia.

That’s Brian Daugherity, associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, describing the state’s policy known as Massive Resistance. An ensuing tangle of litigation kept things tied up in the courts for the next several years. Then, as the tide began to truly turn in favor of integration, the state took an even more radical step.

DAUGHERITY: We have schools that are closed in several districts around the state, including Charlottesville, by the governor, because school desegregation had been ordered and upheld by the federal district courts.

But even that only delayed the inevitable. In 1959, federal courts ruled against those school closings, putting previous integration orders, including Judge Paul’s in the Charlottesville case, back into effect.

DAUGHERITY: We have the beginnings of school desegregation in Norfolk and Arlington, initially, and then not long after, in Charlottesville. And that’s really the beginnings of school desegregation in Virginia. After that, localities have essentially kind of a choice in terms of how they proceed. They can start to develop school desegregation plans on their own, or they can wait until they are forced to comply by NAACP litigation.

Back to the year before, in 1958:  Amidst the legal chaos surrounding school integration, Judge Paul issued another important order from the Harrisonburg courthouse. This time, he ordered the Warren County Schools to integrate. The climate was tense enough, recalls his nephew John Paul, that a personal security detail sometimes followed him home to his farm in Ottobine.

JOHN PAUL: At certain points, if I recall, either U.S. Marshals or FBI agents would be around to make sure that he was safe.

Completed in 1940, the federal courthouse building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 2018.
Credit Andrew Jenner

Judge Paul died in early 1964, about six months before school integration began in Harrisonburg. There, it didn’t ultimately come to a federal lawsuit. Instead, in the fall of 1964, under a so-called “freedom of choice” plan, African-American students were allowed to enroll in Harrisonburg’s previously all-white schools. According to newspaper reports, a total of 13 did so that year – 11 high schoolers and two elementary students. The next fall, the segregated Lucy F. Simms School ended its regular high school classes, sending another 70 or so African-American students to Harrisonburg High School. Then, in the fall of 1966, all city schools integrated and a new system of school districting, based on geography, took effect.

COSTELLA FORNEY: It was seventh grade.

Until then, Costella Forney, now a pastor at Harrisonburg’s John Wesley United Methodist Church, had attended the segregated Simms School.

FORNEY: I really didn’t know what to expect. But, from what I recall, things were OK. We pretty much got along with the other children. As usual, there’s always one or two that evidently just didn’t like black people, or were prejudiced. But I didn’t see a whole lot of it. It just seemed like people were trying. ‘They’re here, so let’s make the best of it.’

After integration, Forney first went to Spotswood Elementary School.  As a seventh-grader she had a general awareness that she’d become part of something big.

FORNEY: I guess what I did know is that we were making history. And it was progress, but as a child, I don’t know how deep it was in me. I did believe that maybe I would have a better chance at a better education, for some reason. I can’t really pinpoint why. It was like a step up, but you had to be careful.

The General Services Administration, which owns the federal courthouse and nominated it for listing on the National Register, wouldn’t agree to an interview for this story. Lena McDonald, a historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, played a supporting role in researching the nomination.

LENA MCDONALD: The property is listed at the state level of significance, which means it is important to the history of Virginia as a whole.

Though often overlooked, Judge Paul’s decision in the Charlottesville case was the very first in Virginia ordering compliance with Brown vs Board of Education. A major benefit of listing the courthouse on the National Register, McDonald says, is bringing new attention to an important chapter in the desegregation of Virginia’s schools.

MCDONALD: Now, the Western District’s contribution to that has been documented and is available to the public.