To the editor:
Lewis Walker began sweeping floors and emptying trash cans in George Washington High School in Alexandria in 1948. For most of his life, “Jim Crow” laws were ruled acceptable by the Supreme Court.
By 1964, the entire custodial crew at George Washington was black. They were the only black staff in the school at that time. Back then, it was assumed that black workers would do all of the unsavory labor, work unfit for white men.
In the years of legal school segregation, it took a lot of grit to take your children to Lyles-Crouch or the city’s other “colored schools,” see the sub-standard learning conditions and then go to work and see vastly better conditions for the white children.
It would have taken determination to ignore the racial insults hurled at you by the children of Alexandria’s segregationists. The yearbook contains a photo of a student in blackface pushing a broom labeled “Lewis.”
You can also be certain that Walker’s dignity changed the hearts of some of the children. Some of those children may have remembered him when they joined the civil rights movement.
The black workers who swept the floors and prepared the meals in whites-only ACPS schools were the uncelebrated parents of the civil rights movement.
Blois Hundley, a custodian and cook at the “colored” Lyles-Crouch Elementary School, was fired by Superintendent Thomas Chambliss “T.C.” Williams for suing the school district to have her children admitted to a “whites only” school.
The Alexandria school board fought sharing public resources with workers, teachers or students of color for much of its history, appealing every court order toward integration until 1971.
From at least 1948 until today custodial jobs in city schools have mostly been held by African-Americans and Latinos. In 2007, Alexandria City Public Schools began privatizing custodial positions. At that time the school board promised to allow the custodians to continue in their positions, provided they did a good job, until they retired. This year, however, ACPS has decided to break this promise and end the jobs of custodians, starting with 10 custodians who have less than five years of employment.
If these 10 custodial jobs are eliminated, ACPS students will be much less likely to see men and women of color as a part of the ACPS family; a family with stable jobs, fair pay, health care and retirement.
ACPS today values diversity and just won a state grant with the goal of advancing six current teachers of color to licensure, which would improve overall school district staffing diversity.
We should be proud to have the school district put state-granted resources into elevating six people of color to licensure. Likewise, we should condemn the needless termination of 10 jobs held entirely by people of color. We should celebrate the ascendency of Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D, only the second African-American in ACPS’ long segregationist history to be named superintendent.
Likewise, we should condemn the destruction of custodial positions that diversify the ACPS workforce, served as on-ramps to opportunities for people of color in the Alexandria schools and were also among the first victories against segregation in the nation.
Though no one on the school board may be a racist person, the eradication of these jobs follows ACPS’ pattern of institutional racial bias which affords people of color the fewest resources and, once granted, quickly takes them away.
Discrimination does not always occur because people intend to disenfranchise people of color. Often times, decision-makers manifest racial discrimination through policy decisions that don’t take into consideration the full context of the affected individuals.
Across our nation, people of color are less likely to have jobs that provide quality, affordable health care or retirement plans. This pattern is known as “systemic disenfranchisement.” If allowed to occur, the destruction of these jobs will follow decades of institutional and systemic bias within ACPS and a society that has harmed black and brown workers.
We want ACPS to be accessible to all types of workers. ACPS should not eliminate the custodial positions.
-Rosa Byrd, Georgia Brown, Ellen Nelson, Judith Haskins and Gwen Day-Fuller, Alexandria civil rights leaders and former educators