Prince William teacher recalls role in helping integrate county schools

February 13, 2012

Fannie W. Fitzgerald, 81, always wanted to teach. She had loved her teachers growing up in Amelia County, Va., and wanted to follow in their footsteps.

For Fitzgerald, that meant teaching in a two-room schoolhouse for African Americans.

“That’s the only thing I knew,” said Fitzgerald, who would later be at the forefront of desegregation in Prince William County and has an elementary school named after her in Woodbridge. “I was used to it because that’s the kind of school I went to.”

Fitzgerald’s teaching career began in the 1950s in rural Amelia. Despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, schools remained segregated.

Everyday, in addition to teaching grades four through seven, Fitzgerald would start a fire, pump the well for water and balance the student register — a book that contained grades, attendance and personal records for each student. Once a week, she would oil the hardwood floors of the two-room school. She was the teacher and the janitor, she said.

Three years later, the Virginia Union University graduate moved to Manassas to teach at Antioch-Mcrae Elementary School in Haymarket, nearly doubling her meager salary.

Antioch-Mcrae was one of 21 Prince William school built for African American students. It was larger than the school in Amelia and other schools in the county, including Lucasville School, but it was remote.

When Fitzgerald moved to Prince William, there was one stoplight in the county near Quantico. She didn’t drive, so the principal of Antioch-Mcrae would pick her and other teachers up in his station wagon and drive them to Haymarket.

Then, one day in 1966, Herb Saunders, director of personnel for the Prince William school system, took Fitzgerald out of her classroom and told her the county “was going to try integrating the schools,” she said. She and three others were chosen to teach at white schools.

“That was really an honor,” she said.

Thinking the transition would begin later in the year, Fitzgerald was surprised when Saunders returned the next day to take her to Fred Lynn School, an all-white elementary and middle school. Her only question was whether she could go home to change her clothes. “I had to make sure I was sharp,” she said.

That same night was an open house for parents, and her room was packed.

“They had to see me,” she said.

She would find out later that her new students had been hand-picked for her classroom. Many were from military families, because they were used to diversity, she said.

Fitzgerald remembers her students as being warm and friendly. She said there was never a problem with her inclusion in the all-white school system. In fact, she said, parents were asking for their children to be placed in her classroom.

As her career progressed, she continued to be on the cutting edge of integration, Fitzgerald’s youngest daughter, Kim Fitzgerald Lennon, said.

Fitzgerald received a master’s degree in special education from Columbia University, which was paid for by Virginia because the same degree was not offered to blacks in the state.

Fitzgerald and her oldest daughter, Benita, were the first black teacher and student to go to Manassas Park Elementary School. After that, Fitzgerald was the first African American to work in the school system’s central office.

The youngest of 11 children, Fitzgerald credits her parents for “always stressing the importance of an education.” It is something she and her husband of 52 years, Rodger — a former school guidance counselor — passed to their children.

Today, Lennon, 44, is an instructional technology resource teacher at the Fannie W. Fitzgerald Elementary School, which is named after her mother. The school is on Benita Fitzgerald Drive, which is named after her older sister, Benita Fitzgerald Mosely, 50, an Olympic gold medalist and chief of sport performance for USA Track & Field.

As part of Black History Month, Prince William County is highlighting its African American history, including slave life and the integration of schools. For a list of events, go to www.visitpwc.com.

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