By Jim McElhatton | Email Jim
For years, James Lomax spent his afternoons on the same curb across from an Old Town church that serves meals to the homeless. Heavyset with a long gray beard, he kept to himself and, at times, could seem a little surly.
But he also displayed a quiet grace and generosity. For one family in an old rental house, whose young children gave him a friendly wave each day, Lomax collected cast-off toys and clothes and then carefully arranged them by their front door when nobody was around.
Because he was in and out of jail for years, few noticed when Lomax was taken into custody in March 2011. It was hardly unusual. From 2008 to 2010, he received more than a dozen littering, trespassing and other misdemeanor charges, which is not uncommon among the chronically homeless.
It was different when he was picked up in 2011. In court papers citing “severe cognitive impairment,” attorneys for the City of Alexandria received a court order appointing a guardian for Lomax to oversee his health and financial affairs. The mental health diagnosis informing this decision is under court seal.
Lomax, a U.S. Army veteran, wound up in an assisted living center in Maryland. On a recent sunny day, bed curtains drawn, he lay curled up under fluorescent lights in an oversized blue sweatshirt and tan sweatpants pulled up to his knees.
When a visitor walked into his room, Lomax, now 67, at first gave a disinterested glance. Then he was handed a copy of a wire services newspaper article from February 1959. It is about the day Alexandria City Public Schools officially desegregated, marking the first time black and white students sat side-by-side in an elementary school in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The photo caption in the story reads, “Margaret, 6, and James Lomax, 8, accompanied by their mother and grandmother, walk past a road barricade and one of 58 patrolmen to enter the school.”
“Yeah,” Lomax said softly. “That’s me.”
Jones v. School Board
In late summer 1958, four years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided “Brown v. Board of Education,” six black families tried to enroll their 14 children into the city’s whites-only schools.
By the start of the school year, no action had been taken on the applications, so on Sept.
2, 1958 – as part of a statewide litigation strategy – NAACP attorneys Otto Tucker, Frank Reeves and others sued in U.S. District Court, filing a lawsuit titled “Jones v. School Board of Alexandria.”
For years in the 1950s, Virginia’s governor all but forbade school districts to comply with Brown v. Board of Education under the state’s so-called “massive resistance” policy. But there were also other, more local forms of resistance.
On Jan. 22, 1959, five months after the request to transfer schools and at the recommendation of then Superintendent T.C. Williams, Alexandria’s school board officially denied all 14 applications. Alexandria’s school administration supplied factually incorrect and misleading information to the school board about more than one of the 14 black students seeking transfers, according to federal court transcripts at the National Archives in Philadelphia.
Though Lomax missed school 12 days as a first grader, he was reported absent more than 50 times in information supplied to the school board. Pressed by an NAACP attorney later to explain the discrepancy in court, Williams, according to the transcripts, replied, “No, I cannot.”
In another example, one black student was described to the board in negative terms like “feeling of frustration predominant” and “unhappy home situation.” Left out entirely were any of the many more glowing comments on the same student’s report card, such as “well adjusted” and “does superior work.”
This and other disturbing evidence prompted NAACP attorney Frank Reeves, in open court, to ask Williams whether he personally agreed with segregation in public schools. Williams replied, “I say that that is beside the point as far as I am personally concerned. I am dealing with a situation. My personal feelings have nothing to do with it.”
It is true these were different times. Classified ads in the back of one local newspaper from this era listed a few jobs for which it was made absolutely clear only white applicants need apply.
ACPS Interim Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin, who oversees what is now one of the most racially and culturally diverse school systems in the state, said in an interview that the late 1950s were “certainly a dark time in the history of Alexandria schools and the nation.”
“Today we would welcome James with open arms and provide every opportunity for him and his classmates to receive all of the resources we can provide to help him be successful in academics and in life,” Berlin said.
‘It can happen to anyone’
The court records appointing a guardian for Lomax make no mention of the long forgotten but important role he played in Virginia’s civil rights history – but the evidence is irrefutable. The birthdays and full names of the bright student mentioned in the old court files in the National Archives match exactly with records in the long paper trail of minor charges against the homeless man two generations later.
He may not have shared his civil rights past as he sat on the curb in front of a parking lot at Princess and North Alfred streets. But reminders were not far off.
Just across the street from his hangout spot is a small house that used to be the law office of Tucker, one of the NAACP attorneys in the Jones v. Board civil rights court case.
Alexandria human services officials said privacy rules prevented them from discussing Lomax’s state, but they made clear mental health struggles are an achingly familiar story among the city’s homeless.
“It can happen to anyone and it doesn’t matter if you’re poor or rich or black or white, because mental illness can destroy people’s lives,” said Carol Layer, director of the Center for Adult Services for the city’s Department of Community and Human Services.
She said Alexandria is able to support many homeless people, but nursing homes can be the only option when someone ages and requires specialized acute care. Even then, Layer said many nursing homes simply refuse to accept residents with a mental illness. This may explain why Lomax now is in a facility nearly an hour away from his hometown of Alexandria.
A brilliant man
When Lomax was on the streets, some neighbors looked out for him. Others gave him the dignity of a polite hello. Still, others were rankled just by the sight of him. A few, no doubt, called the police to get him to move along.
Either way, few could have known that he grew up on North Fairfax Street and that he called the neighborhood home long before almost everyone else moved in. Lomax’s niece, Cheryl, said it’s impossible to know why his path turned out the way it did, but she said he was never the same after his military service. She said homelessness seemed to be a choice for him.
“He hated to be inside,” she said.
Over the years, Lomax did not say much about his time in the military, according to family members. They say he talked of being in Germany, but they’re not sure whether he also served elsewhere or went to Vietnam.
Among the photos family members have of Lomax is one where he is standing alone with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. It seems to be somewhere on the Army’s Presidio base around the early 1970s, judging by the cars in the background. The photo is
grainy. Lomax appears to be wearing an honor guard uniform and is perhaps a specialist. His uniform is spotless, the helmet tilted just so. One thing is certain – it was a proud moment.
Cheryl described her uncle as brilliant. She said after Lomax became homeless, he sometimes came in from the streets to visit. She remembers in 1996, when her daughter was five, Lomax would sit with her and teach her multiplication. Today, her daughter is a teacher.
A cousin, Bernadette Banks, said life was hard for Lomax and his siblings growing up.
“They came up under a lot of stress and drama,” she said. “He got out of the service, and from there it was downhill.”
For as proud as she is of her cousins James and Margaret and their history-making struggles and sacrifices, Banks said she also can’t help but think about the impact of those hard early years later in his life.
“You just wonder,” she said.
In her book “Caught Between Two Systems,” former Alexandria teacher Mable Lyles reported the first black students to break the racial barrier in Alexandria “suffered the stares of classmates and the racial slurs shouted from passing cars.”
Some students were pelted with spitballs. They were tripped in hallways. Books were knocked out of their hands. Some received undeservedly low grades. Old Dominion University history professor Brian Daugherity, whose book “Keep On Keeping On” documents desegregation in Virginia, said many of the first black students to integrate white schools tell similar, vivid stories about those same taunts. Lomax was no exception.
His mother, Hazel Lomax, later said she knew she did the right thing after her daughter Margaret became valedictorian, according to Lyles. But the young mother would also “always remember the white pupil who kept spitting on her son.”
James Lomax was just the sort of plaintiff the NAACP had in mind as its attorneys plotted how to tear down segregation in Virginia.
Daugherity said the NAACP’s attorneys chose only students as plaintiffs who were “beyond reproach.” He said attorneys did not want their litigation to get drawn into questions about students’ academic abilities. They wanted the focus to be on race, where it belonged.
Lomax fit the profile. He was undeniably smart. He received all A’s and B’s in his core subjects. And in court, even Williams would admit Lomax’s IQ score was higher than the median for white students his age.
Still, schooling might not have been the primary motivation for Hazel Lomax’s request to transfer James and Margaret in the first place.
Benjamin Lomax, James’ younger brother by about a decade, said his mother wanted his older siblings to go to the whites-only Theodore Ficklin School for the simple reason it was far safer to travel there. Ficklin was only a block from their house, while Charles Houston, the blacks-only school they had previously attended, was almost a mile away.
“She didn’t want to see them walking through the snow for a mile,” Benjamin Lomax said.
‘A good day’
James Lomax is told his visitor is a reporter doing a story on his role in a civil rights case that helped change education in Virginia. He is asked if it would be OK and he says yes.
The long gray beard he was known for in the streets is all but gone, and so is much of the weight. He answers questions just a few words at a time.
How long did you go to the Ficklin School?
He says the building was knocked down.
How did you like it?
“I didn’t get into a whole lot of trouble.”
How about that day? Do you remember that day?
What do you remember?
He says there was a large police presence, and then he pauses.
“A good day.”
He talks a little about his years in high school and in the Army. Later this man, who so hated being stuck inside later in life, is asked if he wouldn’t like to go outside because, after all, it is a beautiful spring day.
“No,” he says, turning over in bed. “I’m alright.”
On Feb. 10, 1959, a gray and overcast day with a light mist on the windshield of parked cars, reporters yelled questions to the second grader, who wore a dark blue cap with earmuffs and a charcoal gray jacket. It was a warm day, so the earmuffs were turned up.
Just days earlier, a federal appeals court denied a last-ditch appeal by Williams and
Alexandria’s school board to reverse a lower court ruling, which resulted in nine of the students, finally, being admitted to white schools.
At 8:15 a.m., James and his sister, Margaret, lunch boxes in hand, walked along a dirt path with their mother and grandmother past police and a crowd of reporters to their new school.
“Why all the fuss?” James and Margaret’s grandmother, Ella Lomax, joked.
Ella Lomax told one reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper that her son, Henry, had served in the U.S. Army for two years fighting for democracy. She said his children, James and Margaret, ought to be entitled to their share of democracy, too.
As for the children, she said James and Margaret were not thinking about anything on the morning they made history.
“They’re too young to know what’s going on,” the grandmother said. “All they know is that they’re just going to school.”
One wire service newspaper photo of James tells a different story. And to look at it all these years later is to know Ella Lomax was wrong about her grandson. In the photo, the second grader’s sister, mother and grandmother are walking together toward the school.
James walked just ahead of them, leading the way, his shoulders back – right on past the “Do Not Enter” barricade.
Jim McElhatton is a freelance reporter and can be contacted at [email protected].
His story on Blois Hundley, a black cook at Lyles-Crouch Elementary School who
was fired in 1958 by then schools superintendent T.C. Williams for taking part in the same lawsuit, appeared in the March 22 edition of the Alexandria Times.