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Virginia Journal of Education
50 Years of Unity
A new association emerges during the turbulent 1960s
By William H. Johnson, Jr.
For 50 years, educators braved chilly November weather to attend the Richmond conventions of their professional associations, events that had become a Virginia tradition. The state’s schools shut down for a day each year so teachers and administrators could participate. Since the early 1900s, though, there had been two annual conventions: one for black teachers and one for white. The stage was set in 1966 for that to change.
Richmond businesses looked forward to conventions every fall; that year, they placed carts throughout downtown providing apples for the educators, and the major department stores held special sales.
In 1966, 10,000 to 12,000 educators were coming. About a fifth of them, though, would arrive early to participate in a vote on a proposal that was more than a decade in the making: At long last, they were going to decide if white and black educators could overcome tradition and unify in a single integrated association.
The result of this historic vote, however, was not a surety.
By that time, both the Virginia Education Association (VEA) and the Virginia Teachers Association (VTA) had earned impressive records representing their members and advocating for public education. Only three years earlier, VEA celebrated its 100th anniversary; VTA was well into its eighth decade.
The VEA, created during the Civil War, historically was composed of white educators but recently had begun accepting black members. VTA was established in 1887 by teachers attending a summer Peabody Institute, the first one for black teachers conducted by Virginia’s own black educators. Although virtually all of its members were black, the VTA had never restricted membership based upon race.
Two organizations fighting for progress
VEA members helped forge Virginia’s first public schools, beginning in 1870, played a major role in the professional development of teachers through summer institutes, and lobbied for the creation of Normal Schools to educate future teachers. Among early VEA victories was certification for superintendents and teachers. VEA also promoted grade schools, high schools, school libraries, school health standards, industrial training, and other curriculum advances. As it gained members and developed a system of local associations, VEA worked to improve salaries, create and fund pensions, and improve working conditions.
VTA helped prepare a teaching force for the schools for black children. Many of its leaders taught at Normal Schools and colleges educating current and future teachers, and its members joined other groups in the early 20th century in a struggle against racism to improve poorly funded schools. VTA also campaigned to encourage black teachers to assert their right to vote.
As teacher membership grew, VTA focused on fair treatment and payment of teachers. With the support of the NAACP in the 1930s, the association helped win U.S. Supreme Court rulings requiring schools to pay black teachers salaries equal to those of white teachers, and then took the fight to local school divisions to enforce those rulings.
A status quo-shattering event to education in Virginia came in 1951, when students at the Moton School in Prince Edward County staged a walkout to protest poor facilities for black students. The Moton group focused on the “separate but equal” doctrine, and their efforts grew into a legal challenge of that doctrine, merging with other cases and coming before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, the Court rocked the nation, ruling that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
In the aftermath of Brown, Virginia officials fought integration using a strategy dubbed “massive resistance.” In the most extreme reaction, Prince Edward County supervisors closed all county schools in 1959 and kept them closed for five years, costing many students an irreplaceable loss of education. Most of the county’s white teachers were employed by a private academy; all the black teachers had to find work elsewhere. VTA, joined by the National Education Association, worked to find schools outside the county for displaced students and jobs for teachers.
Many black teachers elsewhere in the state also were losing their jobs as their schools were closed and their students moved into newly-integrated schools. VEA and VTA challenged the layoffs in court and worked to find jobs for displaced educators.
Massive resistance significantly drew out the integration process. As the associations prepared to vote on merger in 1966, however, several schools in the state had integrated student bodies and faculty. Racism, though, persisted widely. In early November, the Ku Klux Klan held several rallies in Virginia, pledging to make the state “a showcase” of the United Klans of America. The nation also was torn by raging inflation and the escalating war in Vietnam, and horrified by the assassinations of President Kennedy and civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
This was the tumultuous backdrop as delegates arrived in Richmond for the 1966 conventions. One hotel refused to admit black members of the integrated delegation of the Fairfax Education Association when they tried to check in, causing the entire delegation to find other accommodations.
“A lot of us were rooming with a Negro colleague,” says Martha Wood, then a Fairfax delegate and later president of VEA-Retired. “We didn't see that as an unusual thing. We’d had the experience of integration and found that it didn’t make a whole lot of difference, that these folks became our friends and we became their friends through thick and thin. The fact that we took a stand without hesitation, I think, says a lot for how we accepted this whole business, and that massive resistance was basically dead to us.”
The sometimes bumpy road to merger
Merger was not a new proposition. The initial suggestion came from VTA in 1954, shortly after the Brown decision, when President J. B. Woodson wrote to the VEA Board of Directors proposing an integrated organization of teachers. VEA, though, was not yet ready to take such a bold step. Its Board directed that President Joseph Van Pelt respond to Mr. Woodson that “the interests of the membership of this organization can be served best through the Virginia Education Association continuing to operate on both local and state levels in its customary and traditional manner.”
Delegates at the VEA’s 1954 convention endorsed the response, which became the official position on merger for the following decade. Although the same convention rejected a proposed amendment to specify that membership was available only to white educators, the language of the response was interpreted to be exclusive until action was taken in 1964 to allow black educators to join VEA.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, tensions ran high surrounding school integration and the proposed association merger. One VEA governance unit wrote the Board of Directors in June 1955, “We are determined to keep the Virginia Education Association as a private, segregated organization for whites for the indefinite future….” That feeling, though, was certainly not pervasive among VEA members and, as school integration advanced, several VEA local associations began actively recruiting black members.
The Arlington Education Association led the way, admitting black members in 1961. As a result, it was disaffiliated by the state association. The next year, the VEA constitution was amended to allow local associations to admit black members. The Fairfax Education Association was next to integrate, and soon was followed by other mostly northern Virginia associations.
In 1964, the VEA Delegate Assembly voted to allow all members of local associations, regardless of race, to join the state association. By 1966, all but 15 of the 122 local associations had removed racial restrictions and more than one-half of them had formally merged the VEA and VTA local associations.
Following the July 1966 merger of the National Education Association and the traditionally black American Teachers Association, the VEA Board of Directors acquiesced to pressure from the national affiliate, meeting during the summer with VTA representatives to reach an agreement that could be voted on at both conventions that November.
With VEA locals recruiting black members, VTA membership declined, causing a $9,000 deficit in its 1965-66 operating budget. VTA leaders were eager to achieve their decade-long goal of merger but also to ensure that former VTA members would have an active role in governing and setting policies for a unified association, and also that VTA staff members would be offered employment.
By the end of August, a 10-point agreement was reached, guaranteeing representation of former VTA members on the merged Board of Directors and Executive Committee for two years. VTA would elect five individuals to serve on the Board, one of whom also would serve on the Executive Committee. Other committees would have black representatives in proportion to association membership at the time of merger, estimated to be 7,500 VTA and 35,000 VEA.
VEA negotiators would only agree to limited employment of VTA staff, offering to hire most of the VTA’s clerical workers and employ “a Negro…at the policy execution level.” Even though VTA Executive Secretary Rupert Picott disclaimed a desire to work for the merged organization, VTA negotiators felt an obligation to provide employment for him. VEA insisted that the professional hiring would be decided by VEA Executive Secretary Robert Williams and the merged Executive Committee.
It was this issue—the future employment of Dr. Picott—that nearly foiled the proposed merger.
Although a few VEA local associations directed their delegates to vote No, the proposal, surprisingly, was approved with relative ease. One motion to delay the vote and amend the agreement was defeated. An overwhelming 85 percent of the VEA delegates—including several newly enrolled black teachers—endorsed the agreement with virtually no debate.
While the VEA vote was expected to be the biggest challenge, unexpected opposition arose within the VTA delegation. At a meeting of black principals on November 2, the day of the VEA vote and the day before the VTA would consider the agreement, former VTA President Alfred Talbot announced that there would be an attempt to amend the agreement to require a VEA staff position for Dr. Picott. Any amendment would have to be approved by both bodies, thus sending the change back to the VEA convention for consideration.
On the day of the VTA vote, however, Dr. Picott resolved the issue, announcing that he had accepted a job with the National Education Association, to begin after the merger. On a standing vote, the VTA delegates then approved the agreement 217 to 7. The long-awaited merger of the teaching profession in Virginia would take effect on Jan. 1, 1967.
After years of controversy, the process had mostly gone quite smoothly. “It wasn't as if we had this fight,” says Charles Corprew, a VTA delegate from Norfolk who went on to be the first minority president of that city’s association. “We really could have merged before because we were not having any problems with the other association.”
A new organization arises
Fifty years later, the third black president of the now-merged VEA, Princess Moss, observed, “The merger took great courage for both groups to come out of their comfort zones, to say this is the right thing to do for public education and for students we’re serving. It wasn’t about individuals. It wasn’t about the separate organizations. It was about creating a better path forward for the students and educators who were to come.”
The new VEA maintained its commitment to ensure involvement by former VTA members and the minority members who followed them. In January 1967, five former VTA members were seated on the VEA Board of Directors. Although the merger agreement ensured the representation only for two years, that period was extended for two additional years. In 1974, the VEA constitution was amended to guarantee minority representation on governance bodies at least equal to the minority proportion of Association membership.
Shortly after the merger, VEA hired Fitz Turner, the final VTA president, for the “policy execution level” position, naming him Director of Special Services, supporting local and district associations. His long tenure on the Association staff today is memorialized by the activities of the VEA Fitz Turner Commission for Human and Civil Rights.
Shelby Guss, who had served as VTA president from 1964-1966, came on board in 1970 as a field director and associate director of instructional services. At the same time, former VTA staff member Dorothy Lee was hired as a staff assistant in the research division.
In 1976, VEA members elected Mary Hatwood (later Futrell), one of the first black teachers to join the Alexandria Education Association in the early 1960s, as its first black president. She served two terms as VEA president, then was elected NEA Secretary-Treasurer, and later served two terms as NEA President.
In 1996, Richmond teacher Cheri James was elected VEA president, becoming the second black educator to achieve the position. Today, James serves as a VEA-NEA UniServ Director in Richmond.
Princess Moss, a Louisa County teacher, was elected as the Association’s third black president in 2004. She, too, has been elected to a national position, currently serving as the NEA Secretary-Treasurer.
As teachers sought and gained greater control of Association governance in the years following the merger, VEA’s agenda became more aggressive in seeking professional negotiations, political action and lobbying governing bodies.
The organization that evolved following unification became a dynamic force in the state, promoting funding and improvement of schools as well as the rights, benefits and salaries of school employees.
“I think the merger was one of the best things that has happened to the VEA,” says David Johnson, who became executive secretary a few years after the merger. “It had to happen. It should have happened long before. It made us a stronger organization.”
Johnson, now retired, served as VEA’s Director of Communications from 2005-2010. Before joining VEA, he had similar roles with the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the West Virginia Education Association.
State approves historical marker for VTA
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has approved a highway marker, at VEA’s request and funding, honoring the founding of the Virginia Teachers Association. Plans call for the marker to be dedicated in Lynchburg on August 13, the 130th anniversary of the VTA’s founding.
Virginia Teachers Association
African American educators organized the Virginia Teachers Reading Circle here at the Jackson Street Methodist Episcopal Church on 13 Aug. 1887. Established during a session of the Peabody Normal Institute, a summer course for teachers from across the state, the Reading Circle provided professional development for teachers of black students in Virginia’s public schools. James Hugo Johnston, second president of what is now Virginia State University, was elected to lead the organization. Later known as the Virginia Teachers Association, the group served black educators until it merged with the Virginia Education Association on 1 Jan. 1967.