The US Supreme Court unanimously ruled on May 17, 1954 that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal. This ruling took almost five years to be implemented in Arlington. Here is the timeline of how Arlingtonians—black and white—overcame Virginia’s “massive resistance” to this first step toward desegregating public schools.   This timeline was assembled from “Integration of Arlington County School: My Story” by Dorothy M. Bigelow Hamm (an unpublished manuscript made available through her family) and “A Chink in the Armor Armor: The Black-Led Struggle for School Desegregation in Arlington, Virginia, and the End of Massive Resistance” by James McGrath Morris. 

1954

May 17:            U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivers the unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. State-sanctioned segregation of public schools is found to be unconstitutional. This decision marks the end of the “separate but equal” precedent set by the Supreme Court nearly 60 years earlier.

June 12:            The Arlington County School Board appoints a “Committee to Study Problems of Integration in the Arlington Public School District” to assess how to best comply with the Supreme Court ruling. The committee is headed by Elizabeth Campbell a white liberal and pro-integration member of the school board. She includes black and white clergy, teachers, and three NAACP members.

June 25:            Virginia Governor Thomas B. Stanley declares “I shall use every legal means at my command to continue segregated schools in Virginia.”

August 30: Governor Stanley appoints an all-white and all-male commission lead by segregationist State Senator Garland Gray, a leader in the conservative southern section of Virginia known as “Southside” to study the problems caused by the supreme court decision.

A few months after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Arlington’s Catholic Schools integrate black students with no disruption, no disorder, and no public outcry.

November 14: Elizabeth Campbell’s committee (along with all other local school study groups throughout Virginia) presents its findings to the Gray Commission urging that:

  • Public education be maintained
  • Compulsory attendance laws be upheld
  • Officials act calmly
  • Local school boards have maximum latitude in carrying out the Supreme Court order.

1955

May 31:           The US Supreme Court issues its follow-up ruling ordering school authorities to exhibit “good faith compliance” at the earliest practical date.

November 11: The Gray Commission submits its report to the governor. It is a policy of segregation that avoids using hot button words and assumed that all local school districts would continue to keep black and white students separated. The commission proposed that if that fails, the school should be closed and the state would provide tuition for private schools to white students.

  • Localities would have the power to assign pupils to schools and manage the desegregation process on their own.
  • Because “no child be required to attend a school wherein both white and colored children are taught,” parents would be “given tuition grants” for alternative education.

1956

January 9:       Virginia votes 2 to 1 to support the Gray Commission recommendations.  Virginia uses the results as a mandate for “Massive Resistance.” Arlington does not vote to support this, voting 10,306 against the recommendations and 8,001 for them.

January 12: Arlington’s elected school board meets officially for the last time. School Superintendent Erwin.R. Draheim says he is concerned that the schools that have so recently benefited from an increase in funding might be closed by the state for integrating. He hears from Campbell’s Committee to Study Problems of Integration in the Arlington Public Schools which found that 15 of Arlington’s 35 white schools would be integrated with the 60 black students living nearer to white schools than black ones. If parents object to their child attending a desegregated school, the student would be reassigned to a non-integrated school. The Campbell committee recommends gradual integration:

  • 1956: a few elementary schools in the fall
  • 1957: several junior high schools
  • 1958: one senior high school in 1958.

January 14: The Arlington County School Board proposes this gradual desegregation plan to the community at the John Mercer Langston School. The school board wants to satisfy the Supreme Court decision and avoid being closed by the state for doing so.

February 19: The Virginia legislature removes Arlington’s elected school board and preplaces it with an appointed one comprised of more conservative members.

February 25: US Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. calls for Massive Resistance, a group of laws to prevent school desegregation. The linchpin of Massive Resistance is a law that cuts off state funds for and closes any public school that attempts to integrate.

May 17:           The NAACP files a lawsuit to force Arlington to comply with the two-year old US Supreme Court’s ruling requiring all schools to integrate. This case becomes known as Clarissa S. Thompson et. al. v County School Board of Arlington, Civil Action 1341.

July 31:           Judge Bryan orders that the schools be integrated beginning with the elementary schools. He issues an injunction restraining the Arlington School District from refusing to admit a student based on race or color if they are otherwise qualified for admission.

September 29: Virginia’s legislature passes the Pupil Placement Act which creates the Pupil Placement Board and gives it power to assign all pupils to schools in the state. The act strips local school boards of the authority “to determine the school to which any child shall be admitted.” The Pupil Placement Board is an arm of Virginia’s policy of Massive Resistance to prevent any black student from transferring to a white school. This board is authorized to make school placement decisions based on criteria that masked racist judgments deemed unlawful by a federal district judge and included:

  • the effect of enrollment on all children in the school
  • the health of the child
  • the effect of educational disparity
  • the availability of facilities
  • the aptitude of the child
  • sociological, psychological, and other intangible social scientific factors.

1957

January:          Arlington’s County School Board met in open session at John Mercer Langston Elementary School. School Superintendent Edward T. Rutter reads a statement approved by the school board saying that elementary school would be allowed to integrate at the school term in the fall.

Arlington’s elected school board is removed and replaced by selected individuals named by the State and the Arlington County Board

February:        Arlington County Council of PTAs convene at Rock Creek Spring Congregational Church to avoid following state seating laws forbidding blacks and whites from sitting together in public. PTA President William M. Lightsey chairs the meeting.

August 7:        Sadie Phillips is the first African-American student in Virginia to test the Pupil Placement Law by applying to transfer to Washington-Lee High School from Hoffman-Boston. Her transfer request is denied.

August 20: Dorothy Nelson attempts to register her son, George Tyronne at Stratford Junior High School. He is denied admission.

August 23: Dorothy and Edward Leslie Hamm, Sr. attempt to enroll their son, Edward Leslie, Jr. at Stratford Junior High School—a mile from their home. Principal Claude Richmond refused to register him because he had not submitted the Pupil Placement form to the Pupil Placement Board. The Hamm family immediately goes to the school board’s office to see Superintendent T. Edward Rutter. He is not available, but they reach him by phone and he confirms that the Pupil Placement Form must be completed before a child can be admitted to a school in Arlington County.

September 5: E. Leslie Hamm, Jr. Joyce Marie Bailey, and George Tyrone Nelson accompanied by Geraldine Davis, a white woman active in the NAACP, appear at Stratford Junior High School to seek enrollment of the students. They are turned away.

  • Arthur Costly accompanies his two sons, Louis and Melvin, to Swanson Junior High School. They are denied enrollment.
  • Rose Rovin, a white friend of Mr, and Mrs. Robert Eldridge, Jr., accompanies their son, Robert III to Patrick Henry Elementary School. He is denied enrollment.
  • Harold Johnson accompanies his two daughters Rita and Harolyn, to Washington-Lee High School. They are denied enrollment.
  • Gary Boswell, a 9th grade student, goes alone to the school administrator and then to Thomas Jefferson Junior High School to try to enroll. He is denied admission.

September: After a talk at the YMCA, Dorothy Hamm receives a veiled threat in the mail scrawled on a newspaper article in which she is quoted as saying that there might be a few “unpleasantnesses” if schools are integrated but that she didn’t expect any serious trouble.

September: Crosses are burned on the lawns of the Costley and Johnson families and at Calloway United Methodist Church all in the Hall’s Hill neighborhood.

September 11: The NAACP returns to the federal judge and its lawyers cite the enrollment attempts as violating the supreme Court ruling and the federal judge’s order for Arlington not to refuse enrollment based on race. Several parents are called to the witness stand by the lawyers for the County School Board who are Frank Ball and James H. Simmons. Geraldine Davis, the white woman who accompanied Leslie Hamm, Jr., George Tyronne, and Joyce Bailey to Stratford Junior High School testifies that she took the three African-American students to school that day because she “heard there was going to be blood shed. These people have shed enough blood. If there is blood shed, it should be a white person’s and mine if necessary.”

September 14: The federal district judge orders the school board to admit five of the nine African-American students who were refused enrollment on opening day. They were Melvin Turner Costly, Robert Eldridge III, E. Leslie Hamm, Jr., and George Tyrone Nelson. The judge notes that only 7 black children will be in a white student population of 21,345 and says that his court order will affect the white population very little.

The School Board and the State of Virginia appeal Judge Bryan’s ruling and integration is delayed.

September 19: The federal district judge orders E. Leslie Hamm, Jr. admitted to Hoffman-Boston without his parents completing the Pupil Placement Form. He rules that students can bypass the Placement Law requiring completion of the Placement Form and review and approval by the Placement Board.

1958

January 6:       The North Arlington Parents’ Committee forms and meets at the Mt. Salvation Baptist Church in Halls Hill. Dorothy Hamm and Carroll Deskins, father of Ronald Deskin, are committee co-chairs. Mrs. Hamm is asked to be the spokesperson and speak for the parents in court. African-American teachers at Hoffman-Boston are reluctant to offer tutoring assistance to students who are not enrolled because their jobs would be in jeopardy. White teachers such as Edith Hebblewaite offer tutoring and other help.

May 1:             The Arlington Committee to Preserve Public Schools—a white organization—is formed led by O. Glenn Stahl. They are:

  • determined to pursue every legal means to keep public schools open and
  • Are not concerned with perpetuating segregation nor hastening integration.

Summer:         The Arlington Committee to Preserve Schools swells to 3000 members over the summer as the white community grows fearful that their schools will be closed if they are desegregated. The committee became the Virginia Committee for Public School and became a statewide organization that helped influence the end of massive resistance because it advocated that moderate whites would rather have some integration rather than lose their schools. Opposition to massive resistance was growing among whites.

George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party and some of his followers storm into several meetings of the Arlington Committee to Preserve Schools and take over the meetings instilling fear in parents and students.

Calloway United Methodist Church holds workshops to prepare students and parents for a smooth school integration. The workshops include ministers, lawyers, educators, professionals, and parents. White parent Barbara Marx helps organize “United US” to provide social events that enable black and white children to mix socially for the first time, so they will know each other when school starts.

July 23:           Arlington County School Superintendent Ray Reid, Jr. sends a registered letter to African-American families stating that they will have to apply for children to attend school during the 1958-59 school session before August 1. The application is the federally prohibited State Pupil Placement Form that will be reviewed by the Pupil Placement Board.

July 30:           The Hamm family does not plan to complete the form and instead sends a registered letter to School Superintendent Reid stating that their son, E. Leslie Hamm, Jr. intends to present himself for admission to Stratford Junior High School for the 1958-59 school session and that this letter should be considered his application for admission.

August 7:        The Pupil Placement Board mails letters to the families scheduling appointments for review of their children on August 12. The letter states that no lawyers will be allowed to accompany the students and their parents.

August 12: No African-American families keep their appointments.

August 18: The Pupil Placement Board reaches agreement with the families that they can have legal advisors present at the appointments, the families keep their rescheduled appointments. Birchell S. Hilton, Executive Secretary of the Pupil Placement Board questions each family with questions such as: “Is this application being made solely to enforce the so-called constitutional right?” Families are required to sign and submit the Pupil Placement Form. Many refuse to sign it. The Pupil Plaement Board interviews 28 children and their parents.

August 25: The Pupil Placement Board rejects all 28 students for transfer to white schools.

September 1: Arlington’s African-American families return to court on behalf of 30 students seeking to attend white schools. It becomes clear that the Pupil Placement Board used five criteria to disqualify African-American students. IQs and other personal and confidential information is revealed in this public forum by the school board lawyers. The Board disqualified the African-American students for the following reasons:

  1. Attendance area: students do not live closer to a white school than any other, 11 disqualified
  2. Overcrowding at Washington-Lee High School: 5 students disqualified
  3. Academic achievement: 22 students disqualified, however, the IQs and grade for several African-American that were cited were above the white norm and some such as E. Leslie Hamm, Jr., were honor students.
  4. Psychological problems: not defined, 7 students disqualified
  5. Adaptability: not defined, 5 Students

September 17: The federal judge rules that the pupil placement plan is not discriminatory. He agrees that the students not be transferred to white schools. However, the criteria for the four students Ronald Deskins, Michael Jones, Lance Newman, and Gloria Thompson is invalid and he orders the four to transfer in January to Stratford Junior High. He delays the order until January because the fall term had already begun,

September: Congressman Joel T. Broyhill asks to meet with the parents of the four students ordered to Stratford Junior High School and says he does not want any troublemakers present at the meeting.

December: Congressman Broyhill meets at the home of Samuel and Audrey Newman, the parents of Lance Newman. Broyhill tries to dissuade the parents from enrolling their children in the white school and asks them to wait until 1960. When the parents decline, Congressman Broyhill leaves the meeting in anger.

1959

January 19: “Massive Resistance” is declared illegal by Virginia’s Supreme Court on the basis that it violates guarantees of public education in the state constitution. Jim Crow laws are declared illegal although the spirit of many of these laws continues.

January 25: Governor Almond calls for a special legislative assembly and to everyone’s shock announces that the fight is over and that Virginia must abide by the law of the land.

January 30: Defenders of segregation pass out leaflets to students at Stratford Junior High School as they leave on Friday afternoon. They say: “You, as a student at Stratford High School, and your parents have been placed on a great battlefield—perhaps the greatest one our nation has ever faced” and urge students to ask their parents “to let you do your part by taking your books home and continuing your studies there until the emergency has passed.”

February 2: Under the watch of the 170-man Arlington policemen—some of whom are equipped with riot gear—the four African-American students walk quickly down the sidewalk and into the school where they met Principal Richmond—the same principal who turned away the three students two years before. First four African-American students attend white Arlington public schools are:

  • Ronald Deskins
  • Michael Jones
  • Lance Newman
  • Gloria Thompson