Role in Desegregation Leads to Historic Listing for Harrisonburg's Courthouse

Mar 21, 2019

Last fall, the federal courthouse building in downtown Harrisonburg was listed on the National Register of Historic Places – due in part to some overlooked rulings there that were instrumental in desegregating Virginia’s public schools. In the first of a two-part series, WMRA’s Andrew Jenner looks at those rulings.

It’s a cold, breezy morning on the corner of Elizabeth and Main streets in downtown Harrisonburg, quiet but for a few vehicles passing beneath the imposing brick and marble façade of the federal courthouse.

[Sound from beginning of a hearing inside the courtroom]

Completed in 1940, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places last September. Among the major aspects of its historical significance are some cases heard here more than 60 years ago, after the Supreme Court’s famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that public school segregation was unconstitutional. Implementing that decision, however, was left up to local school boards. In Virginia, many resisted.

BRIAN DAUGHERITY: So the NAACP is forced to litigate.

Brian Daugherity is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.

DAUGHERITY: In Virginia, we had a pretty prolific legal staff that was working with the NAACP, led by famed attorney Oliver Hill. After giving the state the opportunity to comply, the Virginia NAACP goes about and files a number of those lawsuits in the spring of 1956.

One of those cases, against the Charlottesville School Board, ended up in the courtroom of Judge John Paul. Daugherity says the NAACP wasn’t sure what to expect from Judge Paul, who’d been nominated by President Herbert Hoover back in 1931, but they were excited by Paul’s seeming impatience with the school board during some early hearings.

DAUGHERITY: They thought that, ‘well, maybe we have a judge here who’s going to be more favorable to our arguments than we initially suspected.’ And of course, in the long run, that turned out to be the case.

On July 12, 1956, Judge Paul ordered the Charlottesville schools to integrate by that fall. A front-page article in Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record the next day called the decision the NAACP’s biggest victory yet in any of the ‘stand-pat Southern states.’ It also put Paul directly at odds with much of the Virginia establishment, led at the time by the Byrd family, which also happened to be the publishers of the Daily News-Record.

DAUGHERITY: For those who supported segregation, including the majority of politicians in Virginia at the time, the federal district court judges and the circuit courts of appeal judges became a grave threat.

JOHN PAUL: There was a literal hatred. I got into fistfights and all kinds of things.

John Paul the federal judge had a nephew also named John Paul. At the time that Uncle John was ruling against the Charlottesville school board, Nephew John was studying physics at U.Va.

PAUL: My name was his name. And when I would run into students, faculty, townspeople, and my name was revealed, people would tell me how awful uncle was, often using profanity and obscenity.

It was such a formative experience that Nephew John quit science and went to law school. Whenever he could, he’d come back to sit in Uncle John’s courtroom.

PAUL: I wanted to watch some of the hearings. So I did. And these two principal lawyers – Spotswood W. Robinson and Oliver H. Hill – really good lawyers.

Nephew John later served nearly 40 years as a General District Court Judge in Rockingham County. But back to Uncle John: after his initial Charlottesville ruling, things got complicated: stays, appeals, new state laws to block desegregation and a slew of new lawsuits. In 1958, Judge Paul heard another of those cases, and again, ruled in the NAACP’s favor by ordering the public schools in Warren County to desegregate.

PAUL: I think these were momentous cases in Front Royal and Charlottesville, and they shook the earth. And not that my uncle was any paragon. It was, he just was implementing the law as he understood it, as decided in the case of Brown vs. Board.

Judge Paul’s 1956 ruling in the Charlottesville case was the very first in Virginia ordering compliance with that Supreme Court ruling. Thanks to the ensuing legal battles, however, it would take another decade or so for school integration to become reality across the state.