The last segregated class at Arlington school reunites


The Hoffman Boston High School Class of 1964, at their 50-year reunion in Springfield. This was the last class and final year that these students attended the school while it was segregated. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Standing on the edge of the football field at his all-black school in Arlington County, Dennis Turner used to gaze across the Potomac River at the Washington Monument.

It was the early 1960s. The civil rights movement was raging, but he felt stuck in time.

“This close to the nation’s capital, and we’re still going to segregated schools,” he recalls thinking.

Turner was a member of Hoffman-Boston School’s Class of 1964. His was the last class that attended black schools from start to finish. The U.S. Supreme Court had struck down school segregation a full decade earlier, but it took much longer for the decision to reach students in Virginia, where political resistance was strong.

Over the weekend, the class celebrated its 50th reunion, joined by dozens of other school alumni at a backyard barbecue in Springfield. Over steamed crabs and fried chicken, the old friends talked about new grandchildren, recent funerals and memories of what they described as an emotional time in the United States and in their lives.

They remembered used textbooks, few opportunities for college scholarships, and a feeling of isolation and fear that grew stronger the day they were gathered in the school auditorium and learned that President John F. Kennedy had been killed.

But they also recalled a close-knit community that looked out for its own. “We were always encouraged to be proud, to keep going, to be strong,” Turner said.

Hoffman-Boston, named for two local, black educators, was Arlington’s only junior and senior high school for black students. And the school, near Arlington National Cemetery, served African American students from several neighborhoods, who made up about 5 percent of the district’s total enrollment by the 1960s.

After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, Virginia lawmakers responded with policies of Massive Resistance, which empowered the commonwealth to close or withhold funding from schools that integrated.

After the courts ruled those policies unconstitutional, Arlington was among the first school districts in the commonwealth to integrate. Four black students entered Stratford Junior High (Now H-B Woodlawn) on Feb. 2, 1959.

During the next several years, black students began to enroll in previously all-white schools.

In the early years, Virginia still prohibited integrated athletics, and school-sponsored dances were banned in an effort to avoid interracial dancing.

Integration was not widespread until the fall of 1964, when Hoffman-Boston High closed and about 250 black students enrolled at Wakefield or Washington-Lee high schools. Hoffman-Boston is now an elementary school.

The county School Board closed the black schools on the basis of equalizing opportunities, facilities and course offerings, according to a history compiled by the Wakefield High School Education Foundation.

The black schools often had fewer class choices and after-school activities and secondhand instructional materials. But the former Hoffman-Boston students recalled having strong and supportive teachers.

They enforced a strict dress code, including no pants for the girls, and a strict disciplinary code that included corporal punishment.

Because the teachers were neighbors and members of the same churches, their expectations reverberated throughout the community.

In school and at home, everybody knew everybody else.

“There wouldn’t be a door you couldn’t knock on if you needed something,” said Della Lockett, who graduated from Wakefield in 1965 after spending most of her high school days at H-B. “And everyone knew you needed to be home by the time the street lights went on.”

Students who came after the Class of ’64 described personal sacrifices in furthering the social cause of equal opportunity for black and white students.

“You don’t want to be somewhere where people don’t want you,” said Jackie Peyton, who attended Hoffman-Boston until it closed at the end of her sophomore year, and then transferred to Wakefield. “That’s how we felt about going to the new school.”

Instead of having the comfort of a room full of people they grew up with, they were surrounded by strangers and rarely saw other black students.

Many said they were surprised to find smoking courtyards for students at their new schools, as well as looser discipline policies and less respectful relationships with teachers, things they worried are still problems at schools today.

Peyton said students tried to make the best of the experience, often with spiritual guidance that was reinforced at church: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Gisela “Ginger” Lombard, a member of the Class of ’64, was the daughter of an African American soldier and a German mother who met while he was stationed overseas. She had siblings with blond hair and blue eyes who attended a white school; she and another sibling with darker skin were enrolled in the black school.

She said she was glad about where she ended up, because the community was so close.

“Our teachers would tell us, ‘Do not let the rest of the world treat you differently,’ ” she said. “I felt very protected by that.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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