Heroes come in all sizes, ages and colors. Some heroes are well-known, while others are anonymous.
As we honor the integration of Alexandria’s public schools, which took place 60 years ago next week, on Feb. 10, 1959, it’s important to remember both the famous and lesser-known participants in the struggle for civil rights in our city.
Ferdinand T. Day and Samuel W. Tucker were perhaps the leading figures of Alexandria’s civil rights movement. Day was a leader in Alexandria’s African-American community, a teacher and federal government worker who in 1964 became the first black member of Alexandria’s school board. Day went on to became Alexandria’s first black school board chair, and Alexandria’s new elementary school on Beauregard Street was named after him.
Samuel W. Tucker is known to many in Alexandria because his name also adorns an elementary school in the city’s West End. Tucker was a lawyer who worked for the NAACP on integration cases and argued before the Supreme Court. He’s remembered in Alexandria for organizing a sit-in at the whites-only public library in 1939, an orderly protest that led to the arrest of the five young black men who participated.
One of those arrested men was Tucker’s brother Otto, who 20 years later was one of the three lawyers representing the families in the law- suit “Jones v. the School Board of Alexandria” that we examine in today’s page 1 story “The day two sisters proved T.C. Williams wrong.”*
Otto Tucker is an unsung Alexandria hero, as were the parents who worked with him and the other two lawyers on the case. It took the intervention of the courts to overcome the “massive resistance” effort in Virginia that was intended to block integration.
But the real stars of that dreary day in the middle of February almost 60 years ago were the nine school children who broke the color barrier in Alexandria. Those children were: Jessie Mae Jones, age eight; Margaret Lomax, six; James Lomax, eight; Sarah Ragland, eight; James Ragland, 13; Patsy Ragland, 14; Gerald Turner, six; Sandra Turner, seven and Kathryn Turner, 11. The children integrated three formerly all-white schools that day: Theodore Ficklin Elementary, William Ramsay Elementary and Francis Hammond High School.
When we think about the bravery of those children long ago, it’s important to consider what that must have felt like: To walk into a school full of people who mostly didn’t want you there. To face the uncertainty of whether your very presence was going to result in violence, as it did in many other places. To sit in a classroom with other children your age – and be the only one with dark skin.
These were exceptional children, chosen for their intelligence and character, and they were important spokes in the large wheel of the civil rights movement that rolled forward bit by bit. What they endured in the winter of 1959 and beyond helped pave the way for Alexandria to later have black members on its school board and city council, a black mayor, for Virginia to elect a black governor and ultimately, for the United States to elect a black president.
Those gains were hard won, and important steps in that journey were taken on Feb. 10, 1959. Alexandrians of every race and background owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.
* The Times previously told the story of James Lomax and his sister Margaret in the May 3, 2018 Times, “The homeless man who made civil rights history.” The first installment in our series integration in Alexandria ran March 22, 2018, and was called “A school cook’s forgotten civil rights stand. on”