Local civil rights leader Ferdinand Day dead at 96

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Local civil rights leader Ferdinand Day dead at 96
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Ferdinand Day, local civil rights leader and the first black school board chairman in Virginia, died last Friday at the age of 96.

An Alexandria trailblazer, Day guided Alexandria City Public Schools through integration and served on the city school board for two decades. But he also is remembered for his engagement in city politics long after his retirement, serving as a mentor and friend to many up and coming city leaders.

Born August 7, 1918 in Alexandria, Day attended Parker-Gray School through eighth grade. But since the city did not offer high school education to black residents, he trekked to Armstrong Technical High School in D.C. to pursue his secondary education.

Day received a bachelor’s degree in geography and history from Minor Teachers College in D.C. and although he wanted to become a teacher, segregation made that difficult, said his daughter Gwendolyn Day-Fuller. So instead he became a Foreign Service reserve officer with the U.S. State Department.

In 1964, Day was the first black man appointed to the Alexandria School Board, 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown vs. Board of Education decision calling for the end to segregated public schools. In his time on the board, both as a member and the chairman, Day helped to steer the school system to consolidate its three high schools into the integrated T.C. Williams.

Day-Fuller said she remembers her father taking his school board duties very seriously.

“I remember every packet and every brochure, just everything he received here,” she said. “He took the time to sit and read and go through it all. He strove to get the best information and so forth so that he could be as helpful as possible.”

Mayor Bill Euille said he served on the school board with Day for a couple of years before Day’s retirement, but their families had been close friends since before he was born.

“I got to really appreciate and know Mr. Day more after I completed college and came back home to be engaged in the community and when I sought my first appointment in 1974 to the school board,” Euille said. “He became a mentor and a role model to me and we became great friends.

“I stayed on for 10 years, but he retired two to three years after I got on, but we stayed in touch in terms of public education issues … but to suffice it to say, we were pretty much joined at the hip in terms of friendship and admiration for each other.”

Day-Fuller said her father was the consummate family man, who was heavily involved with St. Joseph Catholic Church and always had a book in his hand.

“Our home in many ways was the central spot for the whole family, especially in the earlier years of his marriage with my mother and so forth,” she said. “He was dedicated to being helpful and supportive not only to his own family, but hers as well. He was just a wise voice for everyone, not only people in the city but so too would family members come to him for advice.

“He was just a great father. I’m an only child, and I always knew I was loved. He was just very supportive and very loving.”

Even after his retirement, Day stayed engaged in working to improve Alexandria and residents’ access to education, housing and other services. Euille fondly remembered his reaction to his election to be the city’s first black mayor in 2003.

“When I first ran for [city council] in 1994, he was one of the first people I sought for help and advice,” he said. “And of course, when I ran for mayor, he was probably more excited and enthusiastic about my victory than my own mother and family.”

That encouragement of young leaders stayed true even in recent years, as his health waned. Those who knew him all noted that his passionate, “philosophical” personality never faded.

“I heard about him my whole life from my family, but I never got to know him until I was an adult and got into politics,” said School Board Member Chris Lewis. “When I did decide to run [for school board in 2012], he reached out, and although he was frail physically at that point, he made a point to talk to me, to encourage me and give advice, so I really appreciate him for that.”

Day-Fuller said her father insisted on remaining engaged with the community, attending as many events as possible, including midnight mass at St. Joseph just last month.

“Even over the last couple of months we had people here, meeting to talk about issues in the city; he still wanted to be part of that,” she said. “He was very eager to go to midnight mass this year — we do it every year — even though he wasn’t feeling that well. But we did make it and it made him so happy, and I was so happy we got him there.”

In a statement, School Board Chairwoman Karen Graf relayed her condolences to Day’s family and said his legacy still is felt throughout the school system.

“Mr. Day’s legacy, which involved planning for the needs of every student, informs every decision we make today,” she said. “Mr. Day changed the whole nature of the school system and was behind the creation of an ‘every student counts’ culture that we widely accept now as the norm. I’m humbled to stand in the shadow of his legacy.”

Day is survived by his daughter; her two grandchildren, William Ferdinand Fuller and Shanna Lucille Ringer, three great-grandchildren, as well as his sister, Mary D. Stokes and brother Clarence J. Day, along with many nieces, nephews and other relatives.

The family will host a public viewing from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Greene Funeral Home at 814 Franklin St. Another viewing will be held from 10 to 11:30 a.m. followed by a funeral at 11:30 a.m. Monday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, located at 711 N. Columbus St. In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be made to the Alexandria Scholarship Fund or to St. Joseph Catholic Church.

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