My View, Anne Thurston: I remember ‘integration day’ in 1959

My View, Anne Thurston: I remember ‘integration day’ in 1959
(File Photo)

By Anne Thurston

I have waited 20 years for your editorial of Jan. 31, “Remembering nine brave children.” I was a sophomore at Francis Hammond High School in February 1959 when the school was integrated, but I moved away at the end of the school year and did not move back until 1999. The memory of that day in 1959 has stayed with me and influenced much of who I later became.

As “integration day” approached, there was much discussion among Hammond High School students but not much information. Popular opinion among the students was divided, and there were conversations about the effect of integration on the football team and the prom.

At some point, we knew that two students, a brother and sister, would be coming to integrate the school. It is from your editorial that I remember their long-forgotten names: James and Patsy Ragland.

The police were a strong presence when the day arrived, checking the trunks of cars coming into the parking lot, inspecting the book bags of students as they entered their classrooms, patrolling the corridors.

My first encounter with the reality of integration was at lunchtime. The cafeteria had three long rows of very long tables where the students ate their lunch, and most students sat with their friends at the same table every day. We had high school sororities then, and I ate with members of my sorority, at a table in the middle row.

When 13-year old James Ragland came into the cafeteria, he chose a side table next to double glass doors that led outdoors and where the gap between his table and the one behind him was much wider. He carried his lunch from home and thus did not go through the cafeteria line.

There must have been a few students sitting at the table when he sat down, but they quickly got up and left. Then students from the surrounding tables began to move away. With every eye in the cafeteria on him, James Ragland sat there and ate his lunch with more dignity and composure than anyone I have seen before or since.

Anne Thurston

I, too, sat and watched, transfixed, my hand over my mouth, my eyes brimming with tears. I didn’t know what to do. But other students did. When the pain of watching that brave young teenager became unbearable, a number of students stood up and went to join him at the table, offering to share a cookie or an apple. I have remembered this story and told it all my life, but I also fear that my memory exaggerates the well of good will that sprang up as we watched James Ragland eat.

In college I began tutoring black students in Roxbury and helped in the beginning stages of what became the first successful rent strike there. Later I helped organize an effort to register people in the black ghetto of Oakland to vote for Bobby Kennedy in the primary of 1968. I was there, in the ghetto, registering people, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

On election day, the turnout in the precincts where I had worked was high, and all of them went 96, 97, 98 percent for Kennedy. And then he, too, was killed as wewere celebrating his victory.

Moving back to Alexandria in 1999, I made an attempt to find the brother and sister who had integrated Hammond High. I did not remember their names, and they seemed not to be in the yearbook. I went to Hammond to inquire of the staff, but they knew nothing about them either.

Once I ran into former Mayor Bill Euille at the Alexandria Black History Museum and we talked about the two students. He remembered them and thought they might even still be around, but nothing happened. I would still love to meet them and hear their stories.

I hope they know that their bravery, courage and composure surely must have influenced many others who were students at Hammond High School that year. And surely they must know the quote from Robert Kennedy, that “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

I did not know until reading a letter to the editor in another issue of the Alexandria Times that Thomas Chambliss Williams, for whom T.C. Williams High School was named, had op- posed integration. Surely Alexandria’s high school deserves a more worthy name. I would suggest that consideration be given to renaming it after the two brave teenagers who became the first African American students at Hammond High School in 1959.