My View: I was there when James Lomax broke the color barrier

My View: I was there when James Lomax broke the color barrier
Clipping from the Feb. 11, 1959 Oxnard Press Courier shows siblings Margaret and James Lomax, accompanied by their mother and grandmother, crossing the road barricade into Theodore Ficklin Elementary School (Courtesy photo)

By Philip Brinkman

Your recent feature article about James Lomax, “The homeless man who made civil rights history,” brought back memories of Alexandria during those years of massive resistance to integration. Alexandria was a southern town and racially segregated. There were restrooms for whites only and restrooms for blacks only; there were drinking fountains for whites only and drinking fountains for blacks only; and there were schools for white children only and schools for black children only.

I was in the sixth grade at Theodore Ficklin Elementary School in February 1959 when Alexandria finally began to integrate its schools as a result of court order. Ficklin was one of the first schools to be integrated in Alexandria when nine boys and girls entered what had been white only schools. James Lomax, a second grader, and Margaret, his first grade sister, became the first children to break Virginia’s color line in elementary grades as they entered Ficklin School.

I remember parents standing around the school, but I do not recall any violence. I also recall that a mother took her seventh grade son, ironically one of the toughest kids in our neighborhood, out of Ficklin School and sent him to a private school because of integration. We found that rather amusing.

Sometimes, my mother substituted at Ficklin School. She told my dad and me that the first grade teacher made sure that Margaret ate lunch with her classmates; however, James ate by himself. When my mother substituted for his class, she had James sit with her and eat with his classmates. Years later, when he was an eighth grader, James recognized me on the street and told me how much he appreciated what my mother had done. Incidentally, Howard Miller, a young black lawyer who helped win the case, eventually became chairman of the Alexandria School Board.

Another story brings to mind the personal aspects of segregation. John, Gladys and Nora May Spence were the only black people who lived in our apartment complex on Portner Road. John was the custodian and Gladys, his wife, was a practical nurse. Nora May did not attend Ficklin School with all the other children in the neighborhood with whom she played. My mother thought it was terrible that Nora May had to attend a different school from her friends.

Not having a car and being frugal, instead of a taxi, my mother would sometimes ask a friend to drive her to school. She probably paid as much as a taxi would have cost, but she would rather give the money to someone she knew. I remember that on at least one occasion she asked John Spence to drive her to school. She did not understand segregation. She asked, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to be able to use whichever bathroom was vacant?” So when my mother started to get in the front seat with Spence, he had to tell her that she needed to ride in the back seat to avoid trouble.

My mother told me that when she was a student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a black lecturer was not allowed to stay or eat in the local hotels or restaurants – racism was not then and is not now limited to the South. She thought that was unfair. I am indebted to both of my parents for giving me a social conscience. My parents did not take part in demonstrations, but their actions and words taught me that racism was wrong.

Likewise, I am not a demonstrator, but I have never been hesitant to stand up for what I believe, even if it is unpopular and contrary to what was taught in school, such as the excuse that slavery was no worse than the way Northern industrialists treated their workers or the canard that it was only one of many causes of the Civil War, instead of the root cause.

As a final thought, recent articles in this newspaper have pointed out the lamentable role that Superintendent T.C. Williams played in supporting the continued segregation of Alexandria public schools, sometimes with misrepresentations and perhaps outright falsehoods. Some have suggested that his name should no longer be enshrined in the name of Alexandria’s high school. Others have argued that he was just implementing the desires of the majority of Alexandria’s citizens.

That, I believe, is a poor argument to excuse what now is viewed by most in our community as shameful. Some stood up for justice and often paid a price. Those we honor need to withstand the scrutiny of time. We should turn the page on a chapter of history, not in pejorative retribution, but rather as a gesture that punctuates the social change that has occurred. There is no reason to cling to a discredited past.

There are worthy people for whom our high school could be named who represent our present values – John Porter comes immediately to mind – but I would like to offer a notso-modest proposal. Change the name of T.C. Williams to James Lomax High School. Let us honor someone, and by honoring him, all of the others who paid the price of bigotry. He is a veteran and served his country. History is made not only by those the world views as accomplished or great but also by people who are not famous and only contributed some fleeting deed. The fact that Lomax ended up homeless and his life epitomizes all of the calamities that entails only underscores what might have well been part of that price.