By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Last Saturday, the George Washington High School Alumni Association dedicated a Virginia Historic Marker on the front campus of George Washington Middle School, commemorating the historical significance of the former high school.
The outdoor ceremony took place near the old front entrance on the grounds facing Mount Vernon Avenue; approximately 50 people attended the unveiling, including Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, City Councilor Canek Aguirre and several past graduates from as early as 1941.
The plaque reads in full, “The City of Alexandria purchased 15.5 acres here in 1933 and opened George Washington High School in 1935. For two decades this was the city’s only public high school for white students. The Art Deco-style building was constructed with funding from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, a New Deal agency that helped modernize the nation’s infrastructure during the Great Depression. Later expanded, the school served as an important community gathering place for the arts and athletics. Alexandria’s school system was desegregated in 1965. This campus, which closed as a four-year high school in 1971 and later became a middle school, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
According to alumnus and GWHSAA event organizer Bud Mayo, the ceremony went smoothly. He opened with some words about the alumni association and overall process of procuring the marker, followed by a speech by Roxeanne Patrick, the current GWHSAA president.
“It was very nice. We kept it brief and it went well,” Mayo said. “I’ve been getting lots of emails and telephone calls thanking the alumni association from people all over that have seen it or read about it on the computer and different periodicals.”
However, some community members are upset with part of the text on the historic marker. Some argue the line stating that the city’s school system desegregation occurred in 1965 is factually inaccurate, as nine Black students entered three of Alexandria’s then all-white schools in 1959 after prevailing in a joint lawsuit with the NAACP seeking to integrate city schools.
In the summer of 1958, six Black families attempted to enroll 14 children into Alexandria’s whites-only schools but did not hear anything back from the school system, then headed by segregationist Superintendent T.C. Williams, about the applications. In September 1958, the NAACP sued the Alexandria School Board and by January 1959, the School Board officially denied all 14 applications.
On Feb. 10, 1959, after a federal appeals court denied an appeal by the city’s school board to reverse a lower court ruling, nine of the 14 students were finally admitted to white schools: 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.
Jim McElhatton, a freelance journalist who profiled James Lomax, the Turner sisters and Blois Hundley – a Black parent – in a series of articles about desegregation for the Times, said that while he supported the placement of a historical marker, it should have indicated that desegregation began in 1959.
“I don’t understand how anybody can make the point that it wasn’t 1959,” McElhatton said, noting that Arlington County – the first jurisdiction in Virginia to integrate – recently celebrated its integration anniversary based on the year 1959. “It’s just historically not accurate. These kids were the first in 1959, and they did so at great personal sacrifice, and their families too.”
According to McElhatton, the term “soft integration” has been tossed around to describe the nine students who integrated in 1959. But he also said that in talking to former students who physically lived through that process, their experiences were much more harsh.
“What I learned is that there is nothing soft about being spit upon, ridiculed, taunted and teased. There’s nothing soft about having the Associated Press take pictures of you as you walk into a school building with your sister and your mother and your grandmother,” McElhatton said.
Kassy Benson, a 1962 graduate of Francis Hammond High School and fifth generation Alexandrian, contended that desegregation took place in 1959 and that the marker should indicate as much.
“This is the date that should be on the marker and I am saddened by the decision to ignore that critical event. Facts matter,” Benson said.
However, others assert that the date is as accurate as possible and would have been weeded out long ago if it wasn’t. Mayo – who came up with the idea and spearheaded the effort – said the process began more than two years ago and was laborious and thorough.
In order to obtain the historical marker, GWHSAA was first required to get approval from the city. Then they had to send a preliminary text to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond, which reviewed the text through several different committees and sent back any requested changes.
“Everything that’s on the sign was validated by the city and by the state,” Mayo said. “You can’t have a Virginia Historical Marker unless the vetting process is done. In terms of content, believe me, they do not approve anything without having the vetting process be complete.”
According to Stephanie Williams, deputy director of VDHR, space constraints on the plaque played a role in the ultimate decision to dub 1965 the year of desegregation. Plus, she noted, the students who did integrate in 1959 did so at other district schools, such as Ficklin and Ramsay elementary schools and Frances Hammond.
“Given the space constraints on the marker and given that our focus was specifically on George Washington High School – which did not receive any African American students in 1959 – we did not have room to describe each step in the school system’s desegregation process,” Williams said. “We consulted the Office of Historic Alexandria while the text was being developed, and they agreed that 1965 was the best date to use.”
For some, the issue is sticky and comes with valid points on both sides. Daniel Lee, the city’s historian, called the situation complex.
“I would say that desegregation began in 1959. I would say that desegregation was completed in 1965. It was a long process, and there is not enough room on the plaque to explain that process,” Lee said.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding the historic marker, most community members agree that the plaque itself is warranted and symbolizes a monumental time in city history.
Mayo, who later earned degrees from the University of Tennessee and the University of Virginia, is as proud of his George Washington High School degree as he is of his college diplomas. So were the other attendees.
“Pride was the thing that permeated that whole crowd,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people came up to me afterwards who personally thanked me for coordinating the process. It’s a great feeling to have people that you don’t even know come up and just tell you how proud they are of going to GW and thanking the alumni association for taking on this task.”
For Lee, the historical marker is a way to tip one’s proverbial hat to the school’s indelible impact on past, present and future generations.
“[It honors] the people that went to school there and the effect that it had there,” Lee said. “It represents a different time of Alexandria pre-1971 and represents a repurposing of the building that continues to have an impact on education in Alexandria today.”
This story has been updated.