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Virginia Journal of Education

Joining Hands

VEA VTA 40 Years Together (1967-2007)

by William Johnson

If "necessity is the mother of invention," then desperation must be the grandparent. Desperate times led to the creation of two Virginia organizations that separately represented teachers for nearly a century before joining their collective strength in 1967.

The Virginia Education Association spawned from the ravages of the War Between the States, with educators gathering in Petersburg in 1863 to create an organization that would help them communicate among themselves and to find a way to provide textbooks to classrooms that had been disrupted by war.

And in 1887, Virginia's early black educators gathered in Lynchburg to create a reading circle for professional growth that eventually became the Virginia Teachers Association.

In 1967, the two organizations came together to begin healing from slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the Separate-But-Equal malaise of the early 20th century and the Massive Resistance of the 1950s. Black teachers and white teachers committed to the process of unifying their talents, their resources, and-more importantly-their dreams for the future of public education in Virginia.

The Virginia Education Association and the Virginia Teachers Association were born of war. They combined their membership and resources 40 years ago. Today, their unified association continues to learn how to use the talents of all educators to advocate for children who depend upon them and to ensure that the professional and economic needs of all school employees are met.

In 2007-nearly 150 years after the creation of VEA, 120 years after the creation of VTA, and 40 years after the merger of the two-we celebrate unification of our diverse talents and experiences into one association that seeks to accomplish our common dream-quality public schools for every child.

The beginning
At the time of the Virginia Teachers Association's birth, "The climate of the times included the restoration of the Black Codes which effectively reinstituted the mental atmosphere of slavery, if not the physical confinement," according to the History of the Virginia Teachers Association, written by J. Rupert Picott in 1975.

"So it was that out of this malaise and Southern return to slavery, winked at and in many cases actually agreed to by the Federal Government in Washington, there came the joining together of the Virginia teachers. The announced outward purpose was to provide a Reading Circle, but the stronger inward purpose was professional hand-holding during those dark days of American history," Picott wrote.

For five years following the war, the education of Virginia's blacks was the responsibility of the Freedmen's Bureau. In 1865, 13,000 black pupils received instruction from 200 teachers. In 1870, 18,000 students were taught in 344 schools with 412 teachers.

"Although there were few black persons who could properly be termed educators, many functioned as teachers in the Bureau schools," Picott wrote.

In 1885, Virginia schools employed 1,661 teachers for the Negro schools. They were paid average salaries of about $25 a month. The bulk of them had less than an eighth grade education, according to the VTA history.

At the conclusion of the black teachers institute in Lynchburg on August 13, 1887, the teachers agreed to create the Virginia Teachers Reading Circle, which ultimately became the Virginia Teachers Association.

The Reading Circle created a system through which the secretary of the organization purchased books on teaching and distributed them to the members across the state. The members were expected to read a certain number of books within a three-year period, after which they would receive a certificate from the organization.

"The one element of great importance in the State Teachers Association in the early years was that in the Negro race in Virginia there was a small group of men and women who thought beyond their own little positions and encompassed, instead, a higher level of attainment for all the teachers in the state," Picott wrote.

In addition to the book circulation, the early activity of the organization consisted of holding an annual meeting, with addresses on subjects of interest. Local associations came into existence around 1900 and began sending delegates to the annual meeting.

As it grew, the VTA turned its attention to improving the condition of schools for black children. Here's a description from the VTA history of a typical school in 1905: "The one-room log schoolhouse without blackboards, charts and maps was the order of the day. The seating for such a school was frequently benches without backs. The school operated less than five months a year and was taught by a teacher with a local permit. Salaries of Negro teachers in such schools were usually below twenty-five dollars a month."

In 1906, the School Improvement League was created to lobby for greater resources for black schools. It focused on correcting the problems of short school terms, poor equipment, low teacher salaries and poor attendance.
The two groups united to form the State Teachers Association and School Improvement League in 1907. The organization had grown from one focused solely on the professional development of teachers to one that appealed to parents and the public to improve schools serving black children.

The new organization conducted a very practical program of painting or whitewashing buildings, cleaning up yards, getting pictures for walls, having bookcases made and putting books in them, purchasing water coolers, building sanitary outhouses, buying tools and implements for school gardens, building better schoolhouses and raising funds for building schools, and extending the term beyond six months.

The black community's efforts toward self-improvement also led to the creation of the Negro Organization Society in 1912. It was a union of all farm, school, health and home agencies, as well as institutions of learning and individuals connected with them.

From 1907 to 1917, the work of the three organizations was almost indistinguishable, Picott reported. "In this incident, we see a group of school leaders working in cooperation, not primarily with school teachers over the State, but with citizens of every description for the betterment of schools."

The VTA also reached out to the white educators during the term of President David G. Jocox, elected in1917. He worked to create a closer union between the black and white organizations by joining their annual conventions.

As sometimes occurs among people of goodwill, the leaders of the Virginia Teachers Association and the Negro Organization Society disagreed over goals and priorities. They severed their relationship in 1921. Picot wrote, ".The leaders.fell into a heated discussion of which organization was 'head' and which was 'tail.' The Negro Organization Society men were certain that they occupied the former position, while the Teachers were just as insistent that they did not occupy the latter place."

As it continued to develop as a strong state association, the VTA authorized the creation of the Teachers Bulletin in 1923. The publication continued in production until 1967.

The functions of VTA expanded with the adoption of a revised constitution in 1926. It provided for a president, 11 vice presidents representing educational districts, an executive secretary, a teacher placement secretary, a secretary of educational research, a treasurer, and a registrar. This revolutionary constitution also provided for a broad array of activities:
. a speakers bureau
. a research function on the status of the Negro
. a state oratorical contest for students
. a vocational guidance program
. a Teacher Recruiting Week
. a fund to help needy schools
. teacher institutes to help implement a new curriculum program of the state department of education.

The year 1926 also was pivotal in that VTA became affiliated with the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, later known as the American Teachers Association.

1937 was another important year in VTA's development. Picot wrote, "In 1937 in its Golden Anniversary Year, the Association abandoned its traditional reading circle role and became a pressure group for equalization of Negro and white teachers salaries, improved schools and equipment, and adequate support of education."

During the next decade, VTA sought to accomplish these goals:
. that every qualified Virginia teacher be paid at least a minimum of $2,400 per year
. that a system of teacher tenure be established
. that federal aid to education be supported
. that attention be given to school buildings and equipment
. that, in all ways, equalization of educational opportunity become a reality in the commonwealth

The struggle for equal pay between white and black teachers came to a head in 1939, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit in the name of Aline Black, a teacher in the Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, for equal pay. The suit was denied by a state court, and, in retaliation, Black was fired from her teaching position.

A fellow teacher and president of the Norfolk Negro Teachers Association, Melvin Alston, took up the cause. He petitioned the Norfolk School Board to equalize his salary and those of his fellow Negro teachers and principals with the salaries of white teachers and principals in the Norfolk school system.

When the petition was rejected, the NAACP filed suit in Alston's name, but again the effort met a setback. On Feb 12, 1940, Judge Luther B. Way sustained a motion by the City of Norfolk to dismiss the case.

NAACP Attorney Thurgood Marshall appealed the case to the U.S Supreme Court, and on June 18, 1940, the court ordered that teacher salaries of white and black teachers of equal training and qualifications be equalized.

Progression toward unification
In July 1944, Dr. Picott attended the convention of the National Education Association in Pittsburgh, but was refused admittance as a participant. His only access was through the Virginia Education Association, the segregated state affiliate of NEA. He joined as an NEA life member on the spot.

After that, NEA Executive Secretary Willard Givens convened a meeting with the executives of the black teacher associations across the south. According to Picott, they were promised an orderly progression toward including both black and white participation.

From 1950 to 1965, a joint committee of representatives of the NEA and the American Teachers Association convened to coordinate activities. During this period, both VEA and VTA sent separate delegations to the NEA conventions, although rules required them to meet, sit and vote together during the convention.

In the late 1950s, during the period of Massive Resistance to the federal order to integrate schools, 63 black teachers were fired by the Prince Edward schools to evade compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision. NEA and VTA worked together to find them jobs and to provide food and financial support for the children turned away from public schools.

NEA and ATA finally merged in 1966, setting about similar unification of state affiliates throughout the south.

As early as 1962, VTA proposed merger with VEA. At its convention that year, VTA delegates proposed the formation of one major professional association of all teachers in Virginia and "if action toward merger cannot be implemented within a reasonable time, then the Virginia Teachers Association (VTA) should feel free to attempt to become the integrated association of the members of the teaching profession of the Commonwealth."

As the national organizations moved toward merger and as VEA's white delegates to the NEA convention sat and worked with black VTA delegates, the membership grew more comfortable with a close working relationship. Serious consideration of merger in Virginia began upon passage of the national merger agreement in 1966, with the VTA leading the way.

Here is a paragraph from a VTA position paper on merger in 1966: "It is inevitable that as time passes, old wounds heal, and stifling traditions are discarded, the schools of our State and Nation will be filled with youth staffed by teachers of various religious and ethnic groups. It is apparent that it would be highly unrealistic, extremely expensive, and totally inefficient to attempt to provide a high caliber of leadership for these various groups of teachers through separate professional associations. In fact, there will be no 'various groups,' so called, as all will be designated only as 'teachers.'"

That year, VTA and VEA agreed to create a committee with representatives from both organizations to explore how the two might be joined. At the time, VTA's membership was reported at about 7,000 members, compared to VEA's membership of about 35,000.

VTA representatives proposed the creation of a totally new organization with a different name and the construction of a new building, so that the vestiges of neither organization existed after merger. The VEA representatives would not agree to those two positions.

The unification agreement was adopted by both organizations, with their business meetings held on consecutive days in Richmond in November of 1966. The agreement included provisions that most of VTA's staff would be hired by VEA, that five former VTA members be included on the VEA Board of Directors for a two-year period, and that membership on selected committees be proportionate to the membership of the two groups for a two-year period.

VEA President Nancy Gibbs reported to the 1966 convention delegates, "The VEA Board of Directors believes that these recommendations are reasonable and equitable and if approved by both associations, will result in a unification of the teaching profession in Virginia that can only constructively forward public education."

The unification agreement also required that the VTA headquarters and other assets would convey to VEA upon merger. The VTA building was sold in 1967 with the newly combined staff housed in VEA's headquarters building. Dr. Picott was hired as a staff member of the National Education Association, while most of the other VTA staff was hired by VEA.

The official date of merger-and the end of the Virginia Teachers Association-was January 1, 1967.

"Looking back upon those days, I can only imagine the emotion and trauma that had to be experienced by these association leaders," says Princess Moss, VEA's third black president since the merger. "The delegates from both organizations did what was right for their profession and for the students of Virginia who depend upon them. But I can still feel the uncertainty that they all had to experience. The white teachers were opening their association to a large group of people who were different, at least in color and custom. They were throwing off the prejudices of centuries to bring the black educators into their organization.

"And the black teachers were giving up an organization that had been their home for 80 years," Moss adds. "It is hard to imagine how they brought themselves to leave behind the identity they had struggled to create, their sparkling new headquarters building, and the control of their own organization."

As a lasting tribute to the history of the Virginia Teachers Association, Moss and the other members of the 2007 VEA Executive Committee have personally paid for a plaque to be placed in the VEA headquarters building in Richmond, honoring the existence of the black teachers' organization that was sacrificed in the name of the unity of Virginia's teaching profession.

Johnson is the VEA's Director of Communications.


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