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Virginia Journal of Education

A Better Choice

A retired teacher looks back at the early days of school integration in the commonwealth.

by Betty Lou Hill

It was late summer of 1958 and the time for me to start sixth grade at Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville had finally arrived. This three-story building with pipe fences around the front had been my school since first grade and I was excited to begin a new year. I was looking forward to new clothes, new shoes and new friends.

But the front doors of Venable were locked, and no children would enter the school this September. Virginia was struggling with the issue of desegregation, and “massive resistance” had come to the commonwealth. Charlottesville chose to close Venable rather than follow a federal court order to admit black students.

I remember my parents sitting at the dinner table discussing what would happen to us. My brother somehow ended up going to the county high school. I don’t know how they worked that out. My older sister went to a private high school in Staunton, where she also spent her nights and weekends. My little sister and I enrolled in the Charlottesville Education Foundation’s Robert E. Lee School, which was housed in an old home. My parents decided that it would be best if we were at least together. The other children in this school were mainly from families who chose not to attend schools with Negroes. My parents really didn’t feel that way; they just wanted my sister and me to be in the same place.

 During the summer leading up to that school year, a group of mothers in the Venable Parent-Teacher Association had another plan. Headed by Nancy Manson, they developed the concept of “basement schools.” First grade would be housed in the basement of one family’s house, second grade at a different house, and so on. Manson’s group worked with the principal of Venable and many of the school’s teachers to prepare the homes for the impending school closure. Apparently, some of their materials and desks were obtained from the school itself. The younger classes needed supplies, which had to be purchased. The teachers guided the parents with many of the decisions that had to be made.

And so my sister and I began at Robert E. Lee. My class, taught by Mrs. Pitts, was in an upstairs bedroom of the house. The desks were old-fashioned, with inkwells in them, and we were crowded elbow to elbow. We played outside during recess and brought our food from home to eat for lunch. I often wished that my parents had sent me to the basement schools: At least the students there got to play outside in backyards with swing sets. I also imagined that they had better, newer desks than we had. Other than that, I don’t remember a lot about my education at Robert E. Lee. I’ve done some research and discovered that the school got rid of many of the frills in the curriculum and concentrated on the basics. I do remember a photograph in the local newspaper that showed my quiet, crowded class sitting together working on our lessons. I also remember that most of the children in my neighborhood went to the basement classes. I wondered why we were all in different schools. Why weren’t we going to school with our friends as we had before?

September to February is a long time for an 11-year-old. That’s how long our elementary school was closed and divided. I was excited when I discovered that Venable was going to open again, and hoped things would soon be back to normal. The basement school students and Robert E. Lee students returned to Venable, but remained in their separate classes until the end of the year. By the time September of my seventh grade year approached, many of my classmates had enrolled in the segregated Robert E. Lee School. I’m so happy my parents made the better choice of keeping my sister and me in public school as the new year began.

My seventh grade year included the admission of twin Negro boys to our grade. Although they were not in my specific classroom, I’ll always remember the tremendous bravery it must have taken to do what they did. From that year on, the schools of Charlottesville steadily became more and more integrated.

Years later, as a brand new fourth grade teacher, I was again thankful for the choice my parents made for my sister and me. I was a newlywed beginning my teaching career in a segregated Quincy, Florida elementary school. I was one of only four white teachers in an African-American school. Most of the white students in Quincy were in private academies, away from the real world that awaited them after graduation.

I thought about the bravery of the twins from my seventh grade year at Venable as I stepped into this new world, where all of my students were African-American. I realized that my new students were all children in need of a top-notch education. My year, like that of new teachers everywhere, was full of challenges: I had a large class (36 students), needed to provide for a lot of individual differences, lacked appropriate materials, and had an administration which was very unlike the one I had experienced as a student-teacher in the west end of Henrico County. However, thanks to my parents and their decision to keep me in Venable, I had learned to view all people as individuals, and not to judge them by the color of their skin.

Hill is now retired and living in Fredericksburg.



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