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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Perspectives on the New Kent County Experience

Dr. Calvin Green, founding president of the New Kent County Chapter of the NAACP, sued the New Kent County School Board. Jody Allen conducted this interview on November 2, 2001 at Dr. Green's home in New Kent County.

Topic: Dr. Green on the impact of Brown
Now, '54 we were informed of Brown and it was an exciting year all over the United States and it gave us a brand new talking thing and a brand new big effort, and that was the year my wife finished college--Virginia State College in '54. The NAACP was smart enough to realize that nothing was happening by that definition in '54 all it did was declare segregation to be unconstitutional. So they went back to court in '55 with Brown II. The effort there was to try to do more than have it declared unconstitutional because we'd been sitting like Plessy v. Ferguson for all those years getting nothing done and they wanted the country to order some movement toward getting rid of it. OK, and so the Supreme Court ordered in '55 in Brown II that segregation needed to be dismantled with all deliberate speed. Eisenhower was the president and when people got all upset and put pressure on the politics, Eisenhower made his famous remarks about taking it slow, that deliberate speed was the language but it meant take it slow and not upset the country. So with his language of moving slowly it actually put brakes on all four wheels of Brown and so nothing happened with Brown. OK? If Eisenhower had not interjected the idea of taking it slow the courts, the lower courts, would have ruled some action. But he was a popular president and they accepted his idea of going slow and so then Brown became a talking word but it wasn't getting anything done.¹

Question: In the early 1960s, what was the NAACP trying to do to bring about school desegregation?
Nothing, because there was nothing to do. We were just living in the love of Brown. Everybody could walk around and say Brown, say it's illegal, but that was as far as it got. Nothing was happening throughout Virginia or the United States for all practical purposes in terms of integration.

Question: Did you ever have any regrets?
I was acquainted with the grief associated with being a civil rights leader. I was not seeking grief. I was seeking that somebody further down the road would have some better opportunities than we had.

[Dr. Green said, "segregation was a way of life" for so long that he didn't question it. An incident that occurred while he was in college opened his eyes. As a pre-med major at Virginia State College (VSC), Dr. Green, along with a group of students began pressuring the college to provide stats on how many alumni were accepted into medical school. In response, VSC threatened to suspend the students. Dr. Green responded by deciding to transfer.]

In Dr. Green's words:
I wrote to VPI (Virginia Polytechnic Institute) and requested a transfer to VPI. VPI wrote me back this nice little letter and told me I was at the school I was supposed to be at. I didn't really know what they were talking about. I'm serious. They said I was at the school I'm supposed to go to. They didn't tell me that I was black and couldn't come to VPI. They said I'm at the school I was supposed to be at. It was then when I did some studying to realize that Virginia State College at Petersburg was the only college [state school] for black people in this whole state. It was the only place for us to go; I didn't realize that Virginia State was the only place for me to be. I began to wake up and realize that there are some real things to deal with in this world.

Cynthia Lewis Gaines, former George W. Watkins student, one of the first students to integrate New Kent School, under "freedom of choice." This interview was conducted by Brian Daugherity and Jody Allen on November 13, 2001 in Mrs. Gaines' office at William Fox Model Elementary School in Richmond.

Topic: First day at New Kent School
Well, [sigh] the school, the inside of the school is a little bit different now than it was when I actually went there. When I went there, you came in the front door and there was an auditorium and a walkway all the way around that auditorium. It was customary that kids came in the building and stood all around that auditorium until the bell rang. Which meant that my first day there I had to walk through all the kids who were standing there staring at me. So, there was a little name-calling, a little laughing, all those kinds of things going on as we walked through. I felt strange walking in because it was all new, but I wasn't afraid to walk in there.

Question: What other types of experiences did you have at New Kent School that first year?
--Well, I remember being in classes and I always tried to sit on the first row or second row, and I would just be in class and I'd go like this [runs her hand through her hair] and the back of my head was just full of spit balls that the kids behind me were blowing in my head. They would chew the paper up real tiny and blow it through the little Bic ink pens, so you wouldn't really feel it, but when you stuck your hand in your head you felt it.

--When we first got there, if we came out of the cafeteria line and sat at a table the entire table would get up. So, after about two days of that I said, "you know what? We are going to the cafeteria today and everybody's going to sit at a different table and we are going to clear 11 tables" (there were 11 black high school students that year). They [her friends] were like all right, let's do it. So we go in, each one comes out of line and we sit at a different table. We cleared 11 tables, kids standing all around the walls with their trays in their hands just eating and we're just laughing because after a while we had to make it funny. If we didn't make it funny, we couldn't have made it [pounds hand on table with each word]. So we just found ways to make it funny.

--At the high school, there was really no attempt by the students or teachers to make us fit in, so we were charged with making ourselves fit in. So I'll give you an example: the first year I was there I tried out for the girls basketball team, and I was the first black girl to ever play basketball for New Kent. But at that time the varsity team, the cheerleaders, and the girls team all rode on the same bus because we didn't have JV (Junior Varsity) girls way back then. But no one would sit by me on the bus the entire basketball season; I don't care if we went to Matthews, Middlesex, Yorktown, for miles no one would sit by me on the bus. And they would sometimes sit three in a seat to keep from sitting by me on the bus, so after a while you just had to make things funny so you wouldn't be hurt. So I would cross my legs, stretch out on the seat put my suitcase up, and prop my feet up and just ride.

And there were girls on the team that did not mind passing me the ball because they knew I could play, so I would pass them the ball. If I got out there and it was somebody who had been mean to me, and I mean I was a child, I know that's not right now, but.... [laughter] I wouldn't pass them the ball. I didn't care if we missed the basket or the points, I wouldn't do it.

And I remember my first basketball game. My parents could not attend and they said "but you go ahead. You'll be all right because it's at a school." Actually it was a private school, and it was a Catholic school, so you're going to be all right. I went to that game and I was the only black person in the gym. And I saw the janitor come by and look in there because he, I guess, wondered where I came from. When they did the starting line up, 'cause I was in the starting line up, and back then there were six girls on the team, just like guys had six, and so they did the starting line up, and I was the last person they called. This man who was up there in the stands, he stood up--and you know how it's quiet because you've just done the Star-Spangled Banner and then they introduce the team--so it's kind of quiet and they had clapped and then they called my name. And this parent stood up and said, "Oh my God, five white girls and one African," and the entire gym just broke into laughter and there I was on the floor in the eighth grade.

Question: What were your classes like?
I won't say that the courses were more challenging because we had good teachers at the black school. Their [New Kent School] tests; there were more items. Like the first test I had in eighth grade in my world geography test, or whatever it was, had 150 questions on it, which was something I had not seen. But now, that could have just been the difference between seventh and eighth grade. I don't know what the kids in eighth grade would have had at Watkins (George W. Watkins School).

Question: How did the schools compare?
We actually had more courses [New Kent School]. For example, we had Latin, we had Spanish, and we had French. Well, see, the black school had one language. The science class at the black school only had three microscopes, but yet, at the white school there was a microscope for two children to sit and share. But we only had three and we only had two sinks in that science class. We also had used textbooks. The furniture was not as nice. We had good teachers and good people [at George W. Watkins].

Question: Were there any white teachers who interacted favorably with you?
Sure. Mr. Galloway, Mr. Chapman, Rev. Stansfield, Mrs. Thomas

Question: Did you ever become friends with any of the white students?
Once they got to know us. By my sophomore year, we actually had friends, black and white friends.

Question: How did the community respond to the lawsuit?
There was opposition also from blacks as well as from whites. There were parents and kids who thought we shouldn't go down there. There were teachers at the school who thought we shouldn't go there. There were teachers and students who were very angry with us because in the end, they lost their school.

Howard Ormond was one of the first black teachers transferred to New Kent School in 1967. This interview was conducted on October 30, 2002 by Sarah Trembanis and Brian Daugherity at Mr. Ormond's Office at the New Kent Middle School (formerly the New Kent School).

Topic: Teacher preparation for desegregation
We went through training. The University of Virginia provided us with consultants who came down every week and we worked on it. They would come up with some pretty good hair raising questions or topics to make you think, make you be sensitive to a black child or a white child. They put stuff on the table to see if your hair would curl up on your head.

We all got along because we were all adults so we had a pretty good relationship as far as a staff was concerned. So we didn't have a problem as far as dealing with the kids and they [students] saw us [teachers] getting along. I guess they said, "well this is going to be OK."

Topic: Physical Education and athletic opportunities at George W. Watkins
They [George W. Watkins students] did not have any teams other than baseball. They were the champion baseball team. The kids never had seen a basketball game. They never had played basketball. They never had physical education. They had recreation, recess... they'd never had a music department. So when I came--and this was in '67--when I came, the music teacher, Mr. Harold Davis, started a band and he started...majorettes. I started the first basketball team that these kids had ever played. At the time New Kent was in the same division as Charles City [a neighboring county]. We did not have a gym, they did not have basketball goals, didn't have anything. So the kids didn't know anything about basketball. So I asked the principal, I said, "well, since we have a two division school system, can you ask Charles City if we can come over there to practice to start a team," and he was kind of reluctant because he thought that was too hard to do. I said, "no it's not." [There were] kids that had outstanding size and ability. They won the state AA, they used to have an AA league which was the black league, they won that in baseball every year. They were just that good but they never knew anything about football and basketball.

So I started the first basketball team. I had 12 kids; they didn't know how to do a lay up, they didn't know how to do a jump shot, they didn't even know how to play defense and offense. So what I did, we would have to go to Charles City and practice after their team practiced. So we had a student who drove the bus. We drove from New Kent, G. W. (George W.) Watkins School all the way over to Charles City, which is Ruthville.

Question: How far was that?
Uh, that's about between 15 to 18 miles I guess, to practice. So, we couldn't practice until after 8:00 p.m. because their team would practice first and then we would practice after that, and then drive the kids all the way back to New Kent and drop them off along the way at their spots. So, we started a basketball team. So that first year we played and we competed against different teams, and the kids had a love for basketball. So, that's the first of basketball. We never did have a football team.

Question: How did the white high school compare in terms of facilities?
They had all the teams, and they had a gym. See, G. W. (George W.) Watkins didn't have a gym. And they had a football field, and they had a baseball field and coaches. [laughs] They had everything that you would have, that you would expect that the black school should have had, that they did not have.

The only thing that the black school had...was a baseball team. Where we played baseball teams and where we practiced baseball was in a black parent's field for the community team...which was two blocks from the school. The school did not have a field at the school site to play softball.... The Dixon family had a field behind their house because their sons liked to play baseball,... and that's where we played.

Question: Did the community feel that the lawsuit was forced on it by outsiders?
No, the reason for that was Dr. Green. See, he was an insider, he was the focal point. He was doing it for the good of the kids, for the parents who had probably approached him, and also because of the law. So, by him being a member of the community, it wasn't like they're forcing us from outside per se.

Senator Henry L. Marsh, III was the primary liaison between the New Kent NAACP and the NAACP's State Conference attorneys who argued the suit. He was involved in the legal preparation of the case. This interview was conducted by Brian Daugherity and Jody Allen on November 25, 2002 in Senator Marsh's office in the General Assembly Building in Richmond.

Topic: On choosing New Kent
We had all these school cases, and we wanted to get a case to be the pilot case so the Supreme Court could really break the log jam. Charles City had 87% black population, and we had thought that Charles City would be the lead case, but then it dawned on us that Charles City was so atypical that a decision in Charles City wouldn't help us because there was no other jurisdiction, or very few with 80% African Americans, so a decision from that case really wouldn't help us too much.

So the neighboring county was New Kent, and it was simple because it had 2 schools...The population [black and white] was about equal. It was a logical solution. We had strong plaintiffs in New Kent. Green, the president of the NAACP, was a strong leader. That's important--to have a case with a strong leader, so the people won't back out on you, and they won't be intimidated. So New Kent was the logical choice.

Topic: The importance of Green
At that time HEW, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, was following the law, so as long as courts were saying that "freedom of choice" was O.K., we weren't getting much desegregation even though the government had put many, many resources into desegregation. When the Supreme Court said that "freedom of choice" was not the answer and [it was understood] that the Supreme Court meant now; "all deliberate speed" meant now [pounds fist on desk for emphasis]; "you need to desegregate now" in capital letters. That meant that "freedom of choice" could no longer be a defense. So then HEW, Office of Civil Rights took that precedent and implemented that across the country.

That's when we had real meaningful desegregation--all over in 1968. Before we had the decision, desegregation was stymied because you only had desegregation where you had black applicants willing to run the gauntlet in white schools. After Green v. New Kent as long as "freedom of choice" was not working, it was unlawful. So HEW took that decision and implemented desegregation on a wide basis--before that decision it didn't happen so that was a crucial case.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What do you think Dr. Green meant by "living in the love of Brown?" Why was Brown II ineffective at forcing school desegregation?

2. Why did Dr. Green take on being the lead in this case? When did he first realize that the system of "separate but equal" was not right?

3. According to Cynthia Gaines, what techniques were used to isolate the African-American students? What techniques did African-American students use to cope with isolation at New Kent School? Do you think you could have survived in a similar situation?

4. According to Ms. Gaines, there was some opposition to the lawsuit from the black community. What do you think might have been the reason for that?

5. Based on the interviews with Ms. Gaines and Howard Ormond, who seemed to adjust more easily to integration--the students or the teachers? Why do you think that was the case? What made the difference in both of their experiences for getting along with their peers?

6. According to Senator Henry Marsh, why was New Kent County chosen as the lead case?

7. According to Senator Marsh, what role did the HEW play in slowing down the process of desegregation? What did HEW do after the Green decision?

8. List the differences noted in the given perspectives between George W. Watkins and New Kent School. How were blacks being deprived of an adequate education because New Kent County maintained segregated schools?

9. Who were the people involved in integrating the New Kent County public school system? What were their roles? What does this tell you about the role that local activism plays in changing society?

10. Do the oral histories presented in this reading help you better understand the experiences of the individuals involved in the fight for educational equality? Why is it important to preserve the stories of these individuals? Do you think studying oral histories is an effective way to learn about historic events? Why or why not?

¹ By the time the Brown decision was handed down in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was already known as a moderate and so it could be argued that his response to the landmark school desegregation ruling was in keeping with his established mode of operation. Eisenhower believed it problematic to express his feelings regarding any Supreme Court decision. He did send a message to the 54th annual meeting of the NAACP in which he said, "We must have patience without compromise of principle. We must have understanding without disregard for differences of opinion which actually exist. We must have continued social progress, calmly but persistently made..." This did not satisfy the NAACP and others who called for immediate implementation of the ruling. James C. Duram, A Moderate Among Extremists: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the School Desegregation Crisis (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981), 111.

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