A school cook’s forgotten civil rights stand

A school cook’s forgotten civil rights stand
Photos of Blois Hundley and her children that appeared in a 1958 issue of Jet Magazine. (Photos/Jet Magazine)

By Jim McElhatton 

In the fall of 1958, longtime Alexandria schools superintendent Thomas Chambliss “T.C.” Williams took the unusual step of firing a black school cafeteria worker who by all accounts did a stellar job.

Blois Hundley in an undated family photo (Courtesy Photo)

The cook, Blois Hundley, 42, a mother of eight, had just joined in a federal civil rights lawsuit to force Alexandria schools to let her children attend a whites-only school.

To Williams, this was an unforgivable, fireable offense. He called Hundley’s participation in the civil rights lawsuit “a slap in the face.” Hundley never worked for Alexandria’s public school system again.

Sixty years later, the name T.C. Williams is world famous – not just for the high school named after him on King Street, but for the idealized story of integration made famous by Hollywood in the movie “Remember the Titans.”

By contrast, the name Blois Hundley is all but forgotten.

Her firing went unmentioned, even in her 2008 obituary. But for the first time, Hundley’s children are opening up about their mother’s pivotal but largely unknown role in helping to literally change the face of public education in Alexandria and Virginia.

“If she could do better for her kids, and she wanted better for her kids, that’s the kind of woman she was,” Blois’ daughter, Dollie Hundley said in a recent interview.

Eight children and multiple jobs

The Hundley children say their mother hardly spoke about her firing, or, for that matter, her life growing up in rural Southampton County, Virginia.

Pearl Harris and Dollie Hundley discussing their late mother’s contributions to civil rights in Alexandria (Photo Credit: Jim McElhatton)

They know a few things, though. They know her father was a porter. Her mother gave piano lessons. And Hundley spent much of her youth learning to cook on a horse ranch where her grandfather worked.

She married, moved to New York and had two children. After a painful divorce, she remarried and had six daughters. But by age 42, her second husband was spending almost all of his days in the hospital battling alcoholism and other health problems.

Hundley and her children lived on St. Asaph Street, in a house that has since been torn down. She waitressed on the weekends, picked up extra money housekeeping and worked at Lyles Crouch Elementary School as a cook and cleaner.

Despite her schedule, she never missed a PTA meeting at the black-only Parker-Gray High School. One night in 1958, the Hundleys recall, parents were asked if anyone would be interested in having their children attend the white schools.

Similar conversations were underway in Arlington, Charlottesville, Norfolk and other jurisdictions, where the NAACP was planning litigation to sue Virginia school systems to integrate schools. Hundley wanted her children to learn a foreign language. It bothered her how the white schools had better foreign language offerings.

In a decision she likely made without hesitation, but which would help change history and alter her own family’s course, Hundley raised her hand.

A panoramic view of students from the all-black Parker-Gray High School, which was still segregated when Blois Hundley joined a civil rights lawsuit in 1958, four years after the Supreme Court’s “Brown vs. Board of Education” lawsuit. (Photo courtesy of the Black History Museum)

Fired by T.C. Williams

Soon, two of the Hundley children – Pearl and Theodosia – were among 14 African American children named in a federal lawsuit that eventually would help integrate city schools. Hundley never spoke to her children about why she raised her hand.

No explanation was needed.

“We didn’t know too much about it, being so young,” Theodosia said. “I think it was understood. … She believed everybody should be treated equally.”

T.C. Williams (Courtesy Photo)

Despite the landmark “Brown v. Board of Education” decision a few years earlier, many states and school district officials at the time resisted integration, including Alexandria – led by its longtime superintendent, T.C. Williams.

“He was an ardent segregationist and he fought tooth and nail to prevent desegregation,” said Georgetown University professor Douglas Reed, whose 2014 book “Building the Federal Schoolhouse” details how federal education policies impacted Alexandria and other school districts.

Under Williams, the school district, with the support of the school board and the local power structure, moved toward “tokenism and foot dragging” policies to keep blacks out of the white schools, Reed said.

“He stood against progress and the arc of history,” Reed said.

During his three decades in office, Williams no doubt hired and fired dozens if not hundreds of school employees. But none of those personnel decisions could have prepared him for the case of Blois Hundley.

Hundley later told a Washington Post reporter she received a call from the schools system’s cafeteria director on Sept. 15, 1958. She reported to her supervisor’s office only to learn she had been fired.

“I just said, ‘Thank you,’ and went home,” Hundley told the reporter.

“I think it was shock,” Dollie said, describing her mother’s reaction at the time. “You raise your hand and then all of the sudden the whole roof comes down on you because you raise your hand.”

In one of a handful of news articles about the firing, Williams made clear the firing had nothing to do with Hundley’s work, which he even described as “very satisfactory.”

Lyles-Crouch Elementary School circa the 1950s, where Blois Hundley worked as a cook for 2 1/2 years before being fired by schools superintendent T.C. Williams for participating in a civil rights lawsuit (Courtesy photo)

“We couldn’t very well continue to employ her after such a slap in the face,” he said, referring to her participation in the civil rights lawsuit. “If we had continued, it would have been condoning her action. Her race had nothing to do with it. If she had been green it would have been the same thing.”

The school board initially backed Williams. Only later, facing the prospect of a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, Williams changed course. Under increasing pressure, he offered Hundley her job back.

Hundley refused. She never worked another day for the Alexandria school system. The family soon moved away to Washington, D.C. and they never came back.

A new, better life

If Hundley felt frightened or angered by her firing, she did not let on.

“I am sure she never would have said, ‘I just got fired from my job,’ because she wouldn’t have wanted to burden her children,” said Blois’ youngest child, Pervinia Hundley, who was seven years old at the time.

Still, Pervinia sensed something was wrong. She remembers news reporters and photographers coming into the house. And she remembers a knock on the door.

The man on the doorstep introduced himself as Philip Stern. A philanthropist who owned the Northern Virginia Sun newspaper, Stern was the grandson of former Sears, Roebuck & Co. chairman Julius Rosenwald, who was also a noted philanthropist.

As the Hundleys tell it, Stern showed up at the door because he was outraged Williams fired Blois. He wanted her story to be told, but felt it was too important to delegate to one of his editors or reporters. He wanted to cover and write it himself. After speaking to Blois for a while, Stern also offered her a job as a personal cook for his family. She readily accepted.

“I think that may have been what drew my dad to her … her willingness to stand up,” Philip’s son, David Stern, said.

Hundley would continue working for the Sterns until Philip’s death in 1992. The families remain close today. When Blois died in 2008, the Sterns grieved alongside the Hundleys for a woman both families, black and white, viewed as a mother.

Hundley’s new life with the Sterns, though it helped her family escape their impoverished situation in Alexandria, did not shield her family from the realities that caused her to be fired.

Pervinia recalled how Philip Stern sometimes would take her and his own children to birthday parties or out ice-skating. When they arrived, it was not uncommon for the person at the door to gesture to Pervinia and frown.

“She can’t come in,” Pervinia recalled hearing as a child. Stern would argue. Often, it did no good. “No blacks allowed,” they’d say. Stern would gather up all of the children and say, “Then we’re leaving, we’re all leaving.”

Years later, Pervinia told her mother she loved Stern for what he did, but it was not easy to be the reason other children could not do what they wanted to do.

Blois Hundley as a young woman (center) with two unidentified companions. (Courtesy Photo)

While she knows her mother’s role in Alexandria’s civil rights history is an important one, Pervinia is just as apt to offer another story about her mother that she says captures the sort of person she was.

After leaving Alexandria, the family moved into a house near a busy intersection on Monroe Street Northeast in D.C. One day, a car driven by white man struck a young black boy in the intersection.

Others looked on. The man was still in his car, perhaps deciding what to do. But he did not have a chance to decide. Hundley decided for him. She came barreling off her property and into the street.

She scooped the child up in her arms, opened the front door, yelled at Pervinia to get in the back then hollered at the man to hurry up and get to the hospital.

“That’s who she was,” Pervinia said. “She was a fighter.”

‘She did … a good thing’

All these years later, the Hundleys say Blois raised her hand not because she was trying to join a civil right case or change history. They said she was just being a good mother.

But history views such acts in a different context.

“In some ways, it’s a minor thing to raise your hand,” Reed said. “But in other ways, it’s how social movements take off. It becomes a tipping point. What is acceptable as the status quo is really no longer acceptable.”

Pearl said her mother never confided to anyone about what it was like to be the sole earner for her large family and find out, all of a sudden, she had been fired for nothing more than wanting an equal education for her children.

For her part, Pearl mostly remembers newspaper photographers coming around the house one day to take pictures. That was when she knew something was amiss.

But Dollie remembers something else.

“I guess I had a little hatred because they fired my mother,” Dollie said. “I didn’t look too much past that. I was bitter. I didn’t look at it like she had done anything great back then.”

But, 60 years later, she was asked if she remains bitter at the Alexandria school system. Dollie paused for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “No,” she said. She paused yet again.

“I understand it a little more,” she said. “I know what she did was a good thing.”

Jim McElhatton is a freelance reporter and can be reached at jimmcelhat@gmail.com