They called it a time to remember and to celebrate.
Nearly 100 whites and blacks who had banded together 25 years ago to combat racial segregation in Arlington public schools, gathered together again last night to commemorate the anniversary of the entry of four black children into what was then all-white Stratford Junior High School.
The event, attended mainly by participants in the 1959 desegregation effort and by those who had children in county schools at the time, was highlighted by recollections that evoked tears and laughter.
In the most touching moment of the evening, Clarrissa Thompson Sligh, an original plaintiff in a desegregation suit filed against the Arlington School Board in 1956, recalled that if school integration had arrived any earlier it would have been she rather than her younger sister, Gloria Thompson, who was escorted by police to Stratford 25 years ago this month.
“I really didn’t want to . . . . All I could think about was leaving my friends,” Sligh recalled. “It happened that it was my little sister who had to leave her friends behind. I’m very proud of her for that.”
As Sligh’s voice began breaking and tears welled in her eyes, Thompson walked to the microphone and embraced her older sister. “I knew it was a very hard time for her because people were very hostile,” Sligh said.
Thompson, Michael Jones, Ronald Deskins and Lance Newman, who entered Stratford on Feb. 2, 1959, were the first black children admitted to a white school in Arlington and among the first in Virginia. All but Newman, an engineer living in California, attended last night’s program.
State Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington), one of many county officials who attended, said afterward: “I was half crying; half delighted.”
Dorothy Hamm, reunion coordinator and the parent of a black child who entered Stratford seven months after the first four blacks were admitted, told the audience that Marshall served coffee to the parents of the four students on that historic morning.
During the gathering at Calloway United Methodist Church in Arlington, more than a score of those who took part in the struggle to desegregate Virginia schools recalled “sick and venomous” phone calls, personal threats and burning crosses. The emphasis, however, was on the cooperation between whites and blacks who fought the state’s declared policy of “massive resistance” to school desegregation.
Hamm, one of the leaders of the Arlington desegregation effort, noted that “When we started, our destination was a few blocks. However, the trip took us across hundreds of miles and five years.”
Thompson, Jones, Deskins and eight of the other black children who later helped integrate Arlington schools, were seated in the front of the church, while the adults who paved their way into Stratford spoke.
Deskins’ mother, Peggy, joked that newspapers reported how on the first day of integration her son overslept and had burnt toast for breakfast. “I want you to know,” she told the audience, “I’m prone to burning toast. It wasn’t just the excitement of the day.”
Ronald Deskins played down his role and that of the other black students, declaring instead, that many of the adults in the audience were the heroes of that day. They, he said, “were really the people who were taking the chances.”
County board members Ellen Bozman and Mary Margaret Whipple and school board member Evelyn Reid Syphax were among the county officials at the gathering.
Syphax, who taught all of the first four black students when they attended all-black schools and who told personal stories about each, noted that she is “often identified as the only black member of the school board. We have not arrived if I still have to have that distinction.”
“Remember and celebrate what we have done,” said Bozman, who said she and Whipple testified against massive resistance 25 years ago as members of the League of Women Voters.
Then, she urged the audience: “Tomorrow, get back to working on things we have to do.”