“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” – Earl Warren, May 17, 1954. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in public education, Brown v. Board of Education.
As we shared in Part 1, “Ethel Overby and Citizenship,” in our research into the history of the Historic Brookland Park community, we ran across the autobiography of Ethel T. Overby who served as the principal of Norrell Elementary school from 1950 to 1958.
Mrs. Overby was the first female African American principle in Richmond and served during one of the most difficult times in the history of our state – the period of Massive Resistance. We believe Mrs. Overby’s response to injustice and the way she mobilized community allies to protect the children, teachers and parents contains “a truth of the past that could be a means to designing an acceptable future,” to quote Mrs. Overby. Here is her story:
“When school segregation was outlawed, our state counteracted by passing massive resistance laws, hastily drawn up and put into action. Compulsory school attendance laws were abandoned. Some portions of our state closed the public schools. In Richmond, Negroes who did not sign Pupil Placement sheets could not send their children to school. [They aimed to show that] the pupil placement sheets showed that the parents were not concerned about integration.
I was given a batch of the Pupil Placement sheets and did not want my parents to sign them. I also did not want my teachers to become involved with this because it was an order from the [white] Administration. I did not know just how I could get around it. One of my patrons, the Reverend Elegant, Pastor of All Souls Church, had two of his children in my school. I asked him if he was going to sign and he said “No.” When he would come to school with his children in the morning, the parents asked me about the pupil placement sheets, I would say, “Go over there and ask Reverend Elegant.” And the Reverend Elegant would tell them not to sign.
After a long while, the Superintendent of Schools called me and asked why I had not sent in the placement sheets. I told him that I was having a great deal of difficulty in getting the parents to return them and that I certainly hated to see my children in the streets. I also told him that the pastors of the churches were telling the parents not to sight them. “Will you give me two more weeks?” he agreed.
The following day, thirty-four children were brought in by their parents to be registered for the next term in my school. I was supposed to give them the sheets to sign after registering them. While I was standing in the hall with a batch of the sheets in my hand, I saw a tall man come in with a little five-year-old child. I showed the pupil placement sheet and asked him if he planned to sign it. He said, “No.” He was the editor of the Afro American. I said, “Well, if you’re not going to sign it, it won’t do any good unless you get in the room at once and tell those parents not to sign it. He was very intelligent, so he told the parents not to sign anything but to meet him at a certain church that night and to get all the other parents they could to attend also. In the meantime, he contacted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They came to the meeting with their lawyers that night and put up enough money to get the case started at once. The courts decided that the Pupil Placement Law was VOID! Not only the children at my school were affected, but others were told to return to school at once.
My strategy of stalling worked, none of our children missed school and parents did not have to sign a false statement.”
In 1954 the year the supreme court ruled in the Brown vrs. Board of Education that separate was inherently unequal, Mrs. Overby had her students write essays titled “Why I’m Against Segregation.” Below are just a few of those essays which were published in the 1954 Norrell Elementary School Newsletter. One of her students from 1954, Mrs. Carol Scott, was kind enough to share the newsletter with me.
Why I’m Against Segregation:
“I want to sit on the bus where I feel like sitting. If a school is right around the corner or somewhere near me, why should I spend money to go to Churchhill? I shouldn’t. In my country everyone is equal!” Judith P. Clay, 4th Grade
“When we say Liberty and Justice for All”, we want to mean it.” Jacquoline Stovall, 4th Grade
“I am against segregation because there is no difference in races. I am against segregation because Colored and White children should not be segregated. I am against segregation because all races could be kind to one another.” LaVerne Savage, 3rd Grade
“I am against segregation because I think we are just as good as White people are. I think we have just as much right at they have. I feel that we can go anyplace Whites can go.” Joan Wadkins, 3rd Grade
“I am against segregation because I think the Colored children are as good as the White children. They could play together, and the White children can make friends with the Colored children.” Beatrice Phillips, 3rd Grade
“I am against segregation because Colored should have as many privileges as White people. We have as much right to do things as White people have to do.” Brenda Blake, 3rd Grade
“I am against segregation because I would like to see both races go to school together. We are all alike. The White and the Colored people are no different. All people are alike. They all need the same.” Nancy Robinson, 3rd Grade
“White and Colored should go to churches together, and play together. White and Colored are no different.” Mary Jane Walker, 3rd Grade
In 1954 when these essays were written, Carol Swan and Gloria Mead were in the second grade at Norrell Elementary School. No one would have dreamed that these two brave young ladies would be the first students to integrate Richmond public schools six years later.
As I read these statements, I wonder “was school integration a failure?” Our local elementary school is currently 93% African American, our middle school is 95% African American, and our local high school is 94% African American. We currently have schools in the surrounding counties that are still overwhelmingly white.
What lessons can we learn from our past that can help us shape a more acceptable future? Is integration a desired outcome? Is separate still inherently unequal? So many African American children sacrificed so much to make this dream a reality. Many of them like Carol Swan and Gloria Mead grew up in the Historic Brookland Park area. We believe they are all unsung heroes!
Were you one of these early school integration pioneers or do you know current or former residents of our community who were among the first to integrate our local schools or teachers who served during this period? If so, we would love to hear from you and share your stories and learn from your insights.