D.C. woman to get the high school diploma she was denied during desegregation battle

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the office that Douglas Wilder took in 1986. He became Virginia’s first black lieutenant governor that year. He became governor in 1990.

Olivia Ferguson wanted to stay at Jackson P. Burley High School, the school she loved, with all her friends. She wanted to graduate and go to college.

But her father was the head of the NAACP in Charlottesville in the late 1950s, and her parents wanted her to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the city’s segregated schools.

Her parents listened to her concerns — she was a teenager, not a civil rights crusader — but she already knew: She didn’t really have a choice.

A judge ruled that she and the other plaintiffs must be allowed to enroll at the all-white schools in their neighborhoods. But the governor ordered the schools to shut down rather than admit black students.

And so began, for Olivia, a senior year without a school — a year of waiting, of threats, of worry, of fear. A brick through the window. A burning cross on the lawn. A year in which she should have been a proud member of the Class of 1959 but instead wore no cap and gown and received a makeshift certificate typed onto plain paper rather than a formal diploma.


Olivia Ferguson McQueen, right, who will receive her diploma this weekend, is photographed with granddaughter Elle Olivia McQueen on Thursday in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

On Saturday, city and school leaders will honor Olivia Ferguson McQueen, who is now 71 and living in Northwest Washington. And they will give her, at long last, a real high school diploma.

It is an attempt to remedy past wrongs, an acknowledgment that some of the leaders in the civil rights movement were people lost to history — including a lonely, reluctant but resolute 16-year-old girl trying to learn.

Olivia Ferguson was a tiny slip of a thing back then, several of her old friends said, a pretty girl, quiet, studious and elegant. She was born into a well-educated and successful family; her father owned a funeral home, and her mother was a teacher, just as she wanted to be.

In the 1950s, Charlottesville was still a deeply divided, segregated southern town. African Americans had separate drinking fountains, separate seating in movie theaters. They weren’t allowed to sit and eat a meal in a restaurant, try on clothes at a store or use public bathrooms. Evelyn Yancey-Jones, a former classmate, said she looked out her window one evening when she was 10 years old and saw a neighbor walking to his car in a long white robe, carrying a white hood.

George Ferguson Jr., McQueen’s father, had sought to change life for blacks in Charlottesville. He led a fight to get black patients moved upstairs out of the leaky basement of the university hospital, where rats wandered. Thurgood Marshall came to their home.

With the desegregation case, Ferguson had trouble recruiting plaintiffs. Parents were scared of losing their jobs or worried for their family’s safety. And students old enough to decide said no. Olivia’s mother had been warned that her job would be in jeopardy if Olivia joined the lawsuit. Bernice Ferguson responded: I have waited tables in my life. I know how to sew.

Virginia’s leaders had vowed “massive resistance” to integration in the years after the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

After the court ordered the white schools to admit the black plaintiffs, Gov. J. Lindsay Almond’s edict came quickly. White parents had already planned private academies and organized classes in church basements.

When school started at Burley in the fall of 1958, Olivia Ferguson didn’t go. She stayed home alone.

It was, she said this week, a strong and reserved woman blinking away tears and pausing for a long moment, “the loneliest year of my life.”

Olivia helped her father at work, answering calls when he was busy with meetings. She read, she watched TV, she sewed, she did chores that she now thinks her mother invented to keep her busy. She looked forward to seeing friends at church.

It was as though she had disappeared, several old friends said. Everyone who had been together since kindergarten was still there in class, but Olivia was suddenly gone.

Soon, two teachers from Burley volunteered to work nights after school to help her keep up with her classmates. So she had an upside-down day, she said; she would go to the English teacher’s home one evening, to the math teacher’s home the next. During the day, she would do homework, wishing she had classmates to work with.

“I would just be looking forward to 3:30 when somebody would be home from school. Maybe they would call and chat about what went on there during the day.”

One weekend evening, a friend came over to visit, and Olivia, delighted to see someone her own age, was laughing and cutting up with her. Just as they walked into the den, a brick smashed through the tall front window into the room.

In January 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the state law was unconstitutional, but Charlottesville was allowed to wait until the following September to admit the plaintiffs to the white schools. The School Board arranged to have them go to the administration building for instruction instead.

That first day, a newspaper photographer followed snapping pictures, and Olivia’s father watched from the car to be sure she got in safely; they had already withstood threatening calls, letters and a burning cross on their lawn.

“I remember I was wearing a brown car coat and a hat, walking up that long walk that wasn’t really a long walk,” she said.

The plaintiffs who were in elementary school had a tutor in one room, while Olivia, then a 16-year-old senior, and John E. Martin Jr., a 13-year-old freshman, sat in another office with two desks, a table with a typewriter and a young, white instructor who rarely showed up, they said.

Olivia was worried: Would she lose her whole senior year? How would she get into college?

She took history and English and typing, the two of them helping one another or studying quietly, or talking as they ate lunch about what their former classmates were doing at Burley, the ball games and dances and courses they were missing.

“I got a feeling he was a grad student just set there to babysit us, I suppose,” Martin said of their instructor. “He knew nothing about Algebra 1. I had to try to learn that on my own. The worst part about it was Olivia was a senior — you know how important junior and senior year are. It was harder on her than it was on me. I can only imagine how many 3-a.m.s she had trying to catch up with people who had a legitimate 12th-grade year.”

Family and friends wrote letters to what is now Hampton University on her behalf, and she was accepted, even though all she had was the certificate listing her courses and grades. She went off to college, marriage, a family and her goal of a career in early childhood education.

The other plaintiffs, from then on known as the Charlottesville 12, went to the white schools the next fall.

Brown v. Board of Education “didn’t change the world,” McQueen’s daughter Tomya McQueen Ryans said. “That isn’t where the change happened. It happened in cities one by one, in schools one by one, with children one by one.”

“She is my personal Rosa Parks,” said Percell Berkley, one of Olivia’s former classmates, “and she has been my hero for a lot of years now.”

She rarely talks about her senior year, even to her family. But she talks about how things are today, and the importance of returning to the past in order to move forward.

She often asks her daughter, “Do we really have educational equality at this point?”

What she learned her senior year had little to do with academics. So the diploma she’ll receive Saturday, at the request of the Burley Varsity Club, will only hint at the education of Olivia Ferguson McQueen.

Since she wasn’t allowed to attend the white high school and lost her senior year at Burley, she’s wondering which school will be named. “I’m interested to see what diploma I get,” she said.

She already has a piece of paper framed in gold at home, anyway.

It’s a letter her father wrote to her on her birthday in 1986, just after the first black lieutenant governor took office in Virginia and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a national holiday. Change had come in part, he wrote, “because of the ‘small crack’ that you placed in the rock of segregation.

“May you continue to make a contribution to America whenever possible. Love, Daddy.”

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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