Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Town Hall Meeting in Arlington, VA

One of the more official or ceremonial duties that I have been performing since becoming President of the VEA is service on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Committee and the Special Subcommittee on the 50th Anniversary of Public School Closings in Virginia.

The Subcommittee has been conducting Town Hall meetings in the various locations where schools were closed as the result of Virginia's Massive Resistance efforts during the late 1950's and early 1960's as school boards and communities around Virginia refused to desegregate their schools in spite of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

Most Virginians are aware, I believe, of the fact that Prince Edward County Schools closed their doors rather than to integrate, and their schools remained closed for five years. Not as well known is the fact that schools were also closed in Warrenton, Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Arlington, VA.

To draw attention to the past and to attempt to avoid such folly in the future, the Subcommittee on the 50th Anniversary of Public School Closings in Virginia has been conducting Town Hall Meetings in the locations where schools were closed. Those who were impacted--teachers, students, administrators and members of the community--have been invited to each event in order to share their personal story of how the closing and ultimate re-opening of the schools impacted them personally and professionally.

Commission members include Chair, the Honorable Senator Henry L. Marsh, III who has been the driving force behind the important work of the Commission. Other members include folks from community groups, professional organizations like the VEA, and individuals who have a vested interest in making sure that the history of the Civil Rights Movement is not forgotten.

Yesterday's Town Hall Meeting was held at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, VA. About 75 people turned out for the afternoon event from 2:00-4:00. Invited speakers included a former guidance counselor, former students, a former principal, a former assistant superintendent, a former chairman of the NAACP, and the current pastor of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church.

Special guest speakers included Mrs. Gloria Thompson and Mr. Michael Jones, two of the four Arlington students who first integrated the Arlington Public Schools on February 2, 1959 when they started at Stratford Junior High School with the assistance of heavy guards and state police who were on the school premises to keep the four African American students safe and to ensure that the transition toward integration would be peaceful.

Some may wonder why these Town Hall Meetings have been scheduled and why they are necessary, but as an attendee at two of these events--the one in Charlottesville and now the one in Arlington--I can attest to the value of having people tell their personal stories.

There is great power--and I believe a great necessity--in reminding us that we must be vigilant not to get too complacent about where we are in terms of the history of the Civil Rights Movement. We must remain cognizant of our history so that we never repeat it.

Indeed, I was struck by the irony this morning of the news from a nearby high school where a racially charged incident took place just yesterday. Students of color are still finding themselves harassed because of the color of their skin, and we must do whatever we can to communicate to the larger community that this is simply unacceptable. We may have come a long way since 1954...but we still have much to do and a long way to go.

The next--and last--Town Hall Meeting will be held in Prince Edward County in October.

(The photo at the top of the page is of a band ensemble of Kenmore Middle School students who played a few pieces for those of us who attended the luncheon before the Town Hall Meeting began.)