A Summary of Dorothy Hamm’s* book, My Story-The Integration of Arlington Public Schools (unpublished)
By Michael Gibbs (H-B 2008)
*Dorothy Hamm and her family played significant roles in the movement.
Following the Civil War, African Americans gained unprecedented rights, allowing them for the first time to be politically equal to whites, and permitting them to decrease the economic disparity. During the period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877), the social fabric of America was changed as some 13% of the population was permitted free interaction with the rest of the country. However, following this experiment in equality, the Federal army left the South, and the former Confederate states began to discriminate in every way€ – socially, politically, and economically – €”against African Americans. The two most important of these were prohibitions against voting and the division of the school system into two separate groupings. The former prevented African Americans from having official power to improve their condition; the latter, as African American schools tended to be significantly inferior to their white counterparts, was designed to keep African Americans from learning enough to pose a threat to the status quo.
The first great court challenge to these restrictions was Plessy v Fergusson, which dealt with a Louisiana Railroad. The case proved to be a defeat for desegregationists, as the Supreme Court ruled that facilities could be “separate but equal;”€ “equal”€ was observed more in the breach than in the main. However, the battle in the courtroom would continue, leading to a series of court decisions that gradually enhanced African Americans political standing. The patriotism of African American soldiers in World War II and Korea, where they had served in integrated units, furthered the Civil Rights movement. In 1954, the Supreme Court took up Brown v Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, deciding that school integration should begin. An additional ruling, known as Brown II, added that integration should proceed “€œat all deliberate speed,”€ giving legal cover for states to hinder desegregation. This led to further suits, including a series that began in Arlington in 1956.
The efforts to force Arlington to desegregate began in 1956, when, in Clarissa Thompson et al v The County School board of Arlington County, a number of parents filed suit with US District Court Judge Albert Bryan to integrate Arlington schools. While this case was pending, the elected Arlington County School Board developed a plan for integration between 1957 and 1959. However, the state, as part of the “€œMassive Resistance”€ program, dissolved the independent school board and replaced it with a county-board selected one, which placed on hold all efforts to open up schools. This led to some African Americans being left without a school, as they had registered for the white-only Washington and Lee, and could not return to the segregated Hoffman-Boston without the correct paperwork.
The first ruling, in 1957, by Judge Bryan supported integration; naturally, the school board appealed the decision, and the students who would have been permitted to break the color barrier were sent to segregated schools. In the meantime, the State Pupil Placement Board took another look at every African American student applying to a white school for the 1958-1959 school year. All of them were disqualified on one ground or another, in a manner that seemed arbitrary and capricious to many. Another case was presented to Judge Bryan in which he ruled on the legality of the disqualifications for each of the thirty students; he overturned four as being without merit, meaning the board could offer no impediment to attending the Stratford. The local Congressman, Joel Broyhill, attempted to convince the students not to integrate; he was ignored. In addition, the â€”Massive Resistance”€ program was facing court challenges, meaning Arlington would not be penalized by the state for integrating. Finally, Judge Bryan ordered that the four students attend Stratford on February 2nd, 1959. Surrounded by police, Ronald Deskins, Michael Jones, Lance Newman, and Gloria Thompson integrated Virginiaâ€™s school system without incident.
One of the remarkable aspects of the Arlington struggle for desegregation was the level of participation by Arlingtonians, and the relative disengagement by the NAACP. It was not that the NAACP was not involved – €”many of the lawyers fighting for integration were in the NAACP – €”but that much of the work was done by locals. Parents and children both played active roles in the fight, lobbying, speaking, and meeting with local officials; in contrast, Brown was a “€œtest case,”€ so called because the NAACP handled (very well) almost every aspect of the lawsuit.
The various tactics used by both sides, particularly in the courtroom, are also interesting and instructive. Both sides had two primary targets – €”Judge Bryan and the public. Public opinion was easier to sway, and generally depended upon emotional appeals (thinly-veiled racism or stories about the strain on children); Judge Bryan used legal principles which, having been broadly dictated by the Supreme Court, could not be dramatically changed by either side. The only legal tactic of note was the declaration that the thirty African American students could be disqualified on one of the following groundsâ€”attendance area, overcrowding at W-L, academic achievement, psychological problems, and adaptability. As this proved to be the last defense, the slow nullification of each of its clauses led to integration. One of the most effective tactics was for African American students to attempt to register in person for white schools; their public rejection kept the issue in the spotlight, and increased sympathy for their cause. Both sides also held numerous public and community meetings, which gave opportunities for both persuasive public speaking and one-on-one conversations aimed at swinging public opinion.