The City of Charlottesville and its school division told another chapter of local school integration Wednesday, celebrating the four students who desegregated Johnson Elementary 57 years ago Thursday.
A historical marker near the school’s entrance was unveiled to tell the story of those students and their parents, who sued for admittance at Johnson in a case that wound up at the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1962, the high court declined to hear the school system’s appeal in Dillard v. School Board of the City of Charlottesville. That forced local leaders to let the students go to Johnson, which in turn led to the integration of the entire school system.
“Each victory paved the way for greater access to an equal education, and the ruling had significant impact across the state and country,” city officials wrote on the marker.
The effort followed Massive Resistance, in which Venable Elementary and Lane High School closed in 1958 rather than admit black students. They reopened to an integrated class in 1959, but the effort was inadequate and necessitated another court order.
Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins and the School Board apologized to the students for the discrimination they experienced during a ceremony that followed the unveiling.
“Thank you for all you have done, and please accept our apology,” Atkins said.
After Venable and Lane integrated, the school division continued to deny transfer requests of black families into other schools. Eugene Williams, who was the president of the Charlottesville NAACP branch at the time of integration, and his wife, Lorraine, led the lawsuit to desegregate Johnson. Their daughters, Karol and Scheryl, were two of the first four black students at Johnson, along with Michael Lewis and Rosalind Whitlock.
Eugene Williams said the school system could teach the history of integration to its students.
“I guarantee you that this will improve race relations more than anything else that has taken place in Charlottesville, Virginia,” he said.
Atkins said she accepted that mandate. She said she’ll recommend at the Nov. 7 School Board meeting that the division dedicate a day to teaching that history.
“We still have work to do, but you have led the way,” she said.
This is the third marker to recognize integration efforts in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. In 2011, the city unveiled plaques at Venable and the County Office Building — formerly Lane High School — to honor the first 12 black students who integrated formerly all-white schools. Earlier this year, the county school division installed markers honoring the 26 students who integrated that school system in 1963.
Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said the event and others like it are a reminder of individuals’ sacrifices and bravery. She said she hoped current students in attendance would be brave like those honored at the ceremony when they want to fight for change.
“It may be your generation that prevents this from being a recycled moment that someone has to do within 20, 40, 60 years,” she said.
‘Making this right’
A photo on the Oct. 24, 1962, front page of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune, the black newspaper during that time, shows Karol Williams leading the other three students into Johnson.
“You never know history until years later,” Scheryl Williams said. “We did not know this is something that was extremely important.”
Many of the children who integrated the city schools have said they were just listening to their parents. The Williams sisters were no different.
“You do what your parents tell you,” said Karol Williams, who started at Johnson as a seventh-grader.
The sisters thanked their parents for pushing to integrate Johnson.
Rosalind Whitlock, speaking via video from Atlanta, said she didn’t realize the significance of the moment until she heard about plans to install the marker.
“I didn’t realize what went on behind the scenes,” she said of her parents’ efforts to enroll her at Johnson.
Whitlock, who had attended integrated schools on military bases, enrolled at the all-black Jefferson School during the 1961-62 school year. When she started at Johnson, she said she felt isolated and experienced some bullying, but the principal put a stop to it. Other than that, she said she had positive memories from her time in the city schools.
“I’m proud of all of us who played an integral role in making this right,” she said. “...Equal opportunities for all children is what makes our country great.”