By Jim McElhatton
On Valentine’s Day 1962, Alexandria’s school board waded through dozens of proposed names for its new high school that included U.S. presidents, military generals, astronauts and the plain, old sounding name “Alexandria High School.”
Instead, the board decided to honor the city’s outgoing superintendent of schools, Thomas Chambliss “T.C.” Williams. A brochure handed out at the high school’s dedication praised Williams, who had helmed Alexandria’s schools for 29 years, “for his humility, kindness and keen intelligence.”
Unmentioned, of course, was Williams’ segregationist stance just a few years earlier to block the admission of Black students into the city’s whites-only schools. In addition, when Williams found out that a Black single mother who worked in a school cafeteria had joined a handful of other families in suing the school system to integrate schools, he fired her almost immediately.
Now, nearly 60 years later, the Alexandria School Board will soon meet again to rename the city’s only high school. Among the finalists in a public vote to replace Williams as the high school’s namesake: Blois Hundley, the same cafeteria worker Williams fired.
While Hundley’s family members say they’re honored to see Blois among the finalists under consideration, one thing is for sure: Whether she is picked or not, there is more than a small degree of poetic justice at the possibility her name would replace that of the man who destroyed her career because she stood up for what was right.
“I’m sure my mom would have been ecstatic,” Hundley’s oldest daughter, Lejeune Oxley, said about the possibility of a Blois Hundley High School in Alexandria.
“Being fired was traumatic,” she said.
Two of Hundley’s children – Pearl and Theodosia – were among 14 Black children named in the federal lawsuit that eventually would help integrate city schools.
Hundley died in 2008, living just long enough to be overjoyed by the election of Barack Obama as the first Black U.S. president. Her family says she rarely talked about the painful episode in Alexandria.
Williams ultimately offered Hundley her job back, but only after negative publicity and the specter of a Department of Justice investigation. She refused.
Moreover, Oxley said her mother’s decision to join in the NAACP lawsuit along with a handful of other Black families was especially difficult. Hundley was a single mother and, as an employee of the very school system the NAACP was suing, she must have known Williams would not be happy.
Oxley said the determination and drive for racial justice runs in the family, which traces its roots back to Nat Turner, the enslaved man who led the famous rebellion in Southampton County in Virginia in 1831.
“She was very strong willed,” said another of Hundley’s daughters, Pervenia Hundley. “She would do anything for her children.”
A cook at the Black-only Lyles-Crouch Elementary School, Blois Hundley received a call on Sept. 15, 1958, telling her to report to her supervisor’s office. There, in a terse exchange, she learned she had been fired.
“You raise your hand and then all of the sudden the whole roof comes down on you because you raise your hand,” Hundley’s daughter, Dollie Hundley, told the Alexandria Times in a 2018 interview.
Dollie, who has since passed away, was immensely proud of her mother’s largely forgotten civil rights stand.
“If she could do better for her kids – and she wanted better for her kids – that’s the kind of woman she was,” Dollie Hundley said. “She just wanted better for her kids, so she raised her hand.”
Back in the late 1950s, Williams’ decision to fire Hundley was hardly a political liability. Microfilm of local newspapers show classified ads that are unthinkable these days, with many written in bold letters with the words, “Whites Only.”
So, it was not a surprise when several prominent Alexandrians, such as then Mayor Marshall Beverley, showed up at the School Board meeting on Sept. 10, 1958 and spoke out in Williams’ defense, just as stories about Hundley’s firing surfaced in the local press.
According to meeting minutes, James Thomson, Alexandria’s representative in the Virginia House of Delegates at the time, told the board the firing was only a “minor administrative detail.” Echoing comments by Williams, the statehouse politician called Hundley’s participation in the civil rights lawsuit “a slap in the face.”
Williams later explained to a reporter, “We couldn’t very well continue to employ her after such a slap in the face. … If we had continued, it would have been condoning her action. Her race had nothing to do with it. If she had been green, it would have been the same thing.”
Hundley did not speak at the School Board meeting. In fact, she rarely ever talked about her firing even decades later. Her obituary makes no mention of the episode. Hundley’s family members say the firing was painful for everyone.
Now, more than a half century later, the Hundley family watches from afar as Alexandrians learn more about their matriarch’s important but largely forgotten role in shaping civil rights in the city.
Alexandria resident Elliot Waters said he recently petitioned the School Board to name the high school after Hundley because of her selflessness and courage. The school board has already voted to remove Williams’ name and is now going through a process to determine a new name for the school.
Waters said he believes Hundley could have won an employment discrimination lawsuit against Alexandria if she had wanted to sue.
“She was a clear victim of injustice and suffered for it,” he told the board in his submission endorsing Hundley. “I believe efforts to recognize her humanity and her right to ensure her children received the best education accorded them by law is in keeping with the courageous spirit of Titans not only on the field of sports but in academics as well as life,” he added.
In the end, Hundley and her family, including her two daughters named in the NAACP lawsuit, left Alexandria before a judge ruled in the NAACP’s favor, resulting in the integration of city schools on Feb. 10, 1959.
Hundley later went on to work as the personal cook for philanthropist Philip Stern, who owned the local Northern Virginia Sun newspaper and who was outraged by Hundley’s firing.
An attorney for the NAACP, Otto Tucker – a civil rights leader in his own right – spoke at that 1958 board meeting on Hundley’s behalf, arguing the cook should be reinstated because she had the right to sue for her children to get an equal education.
“She did not publicly attack either the School Board or the superintendent,” Tucker told the board. “She seeks only the equal protection of laws for her two children.”
“She has given her best … and Mr. Williams has no complaint against her work,” Tucker added.
Only one School Board member, D.E. Kerbel, agreed, introducing a motion to rehire Hundley. No colleagues joined. And the motion died.
Go here to vote for Blois Hundley or one of the other proposed new names for T.C. Williams high school. Voting ends at midnight on Friday.
Read Jim McElhatton’s three previous stories about the integration of Alexandria’s public schools by clicking the links below.
Read more: A school cook’s forgotten civil rights stand