Our View: Words matter

Our View: Words matter
Some community members disagree on whether the marker should indicate that city desegregation took place in 1959 or 1965 (photo Office of Historic Alexandria)

Words are important, both those that are spoken and those left unsaid.

For instance, hearing the words “I love you” from a loved one is affirming for both the hearer and speaker. The absence of those words, especially if longed for, can scar for life.

The power of words, and how much it hurts when they are omitted, is at the forefront of today’s page 1 Alexandria Times story, “Historic marker placed at GW.” For those unaware, a new Virginia Historical Marker was unveiled at George Washington Middle School last Saturday. Along with detailing the history of GW as a high school, the plaque contains this sen- tence: “Alexandria’s school system was desegregated in 1965.”

That sentence certainly comes as news to us, as it undoubtedly does to the Black students and their families who braved insults, isolation and physical threats to desegregate Alexandria’s public schools in 1959.

Yes, of course desegregation in Alexandria was started, not finished, in 1959. It happened after a court order mandated that Alexandria’s then superintendent T.C. Williams stop blocking the admission of nine Black children from previously all-white schools.

For a better understanding of what happened in 1959, see the Alexandria Times four-part series on integration of Alexandria public schools written by freelance writer Jim McElhatton; simply go to alextimes.com and search under “McElhatton.” Start with “A school cook’s forgotten civil rights stand” that ran March 22, 2018.

Though we wish it had begun and been completed all at once, that’s not how it happened. That’s also seldom how life works. It took more than another half-decade before the desegregation that began in 1959 was completed.

It’s also fine if people want to parse words, and call what happened in 1959 the beginning of integration, while full desegregation wasn’t achieved for another six years. What’s not OK is to simply cancel the integration of 1959 by ignoring it.

It’s unfortunate that Alexandria has erected a historical marker that’s historically incorrect about one of the most significant events in this city’s history.

The last paragraphs of our editorial that ran on Jan. 31, 2019 – that accompanied McElhatton’s third story on integration – bear repeating.

“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 im- portant 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.”