Just inside Luther Jackson Middle School, a colorful mural greets John Simo as he arrives for classes each day. It depicts graceful Vietnamese women in traditional conical hats, South American women in bright red, yellow and green dresses and people from the Middle East. There's a black girl in jeans next to a white boy in a T-shirt and baggy pants. The students who painted it titled their work "The World of L.J.M.S."
So John, a seventh-grader, said he was pretty shocked when he found out recently that his school used to represent a far different world. Years ago, he learned, Jackson was only for black students, who weren't allowed at other Fairfax high schools.
From left, Ana Moschopoulos, Maura Lora and Beatriz Portello, all 14, chat after classes at Luther Jackson Middle School. Now one of the county's most diverse schools, Luther Jackson opened in 1954 as Fairfax's only school for black students.
(Ryan Anson - For The Washington Post)
"It's so hard to think about how people were so segregated, and now everybody gets along," John said. "When I first read about segregation, I couldn't believe the things that people did to each other."
Luther Jackson Middle School opened its doors in 1954 as Fairfax County's sole high school for black students, marking the first time the county's African American teenagers did not have to travel to the District or Prince William County for a high school education. This year, as the school marks its 50th anniversary, teachers and administrators are turning to their school's past to provide today's students with valuable lessons in history and tolerance.
"We feel like there's a responsibility here -- the history comes with a responsibility," said Pamela Collier, a reading specialist at Jackson.
Added Principal Carol Robinson, "The school is a concrete example of what happened."
Worn yearbooks from the school's early days have been pulled out of storage, and students are learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. On Saturday, there will be an open house for former students and staff, and on Tuesday evening, Robinson will be joined by several of her predecessors for a "parade of principals" reception.
Perhaps most important, former students are planning visits to civics and social studies classes to share their memories of life in a segregated society -- conversations that will bring history to life for the middle school students.
"These are people who lived it and experienced it," Robinson said. "The students will realize this is a real thing that happened."
Collier, who has researched the school's history, said Luther Jackson was built only after members of the black community, tired of sending their children to Manassas or the District, fought for a school closer to home. "Fairfax County went to the black population and said, 'If you provide the land, we'll build a school' . . . and they did," she said.
The red brick school on Gallows Road in the Falls Church area welcomed its first students in September 1954, four months after the Supreme Court declared that separate was not equal. It was named for prominent Virginia historian and educator Luther P. Jackson, who headed the History Department at Virginia State College in Petersburg and founded the Negro Voters League of Virginia.
It wasn't until September 1960 that 19 black Fairfax students began classes at eight previously "white only" high schools, according to the county. It took five more years for Fairfax County schools to become completely integrated.
Today, Jackson has about 1,050 students from 60 countries. Robinson said that 60 percent of the students are minorities and that 40 languages are spoken in the hallways. Spanish is the most prevalent first language among the 70 percent of students whose first language is not English, followed by Korean and Vietnamese.
Ron Reaves, 62, a former student who heads the school's active alumni association, said he's planning to return to the classrooms in February for Black History Month. Reaves, who was quarterback of the school's football team, said he'll tell the children that it was dangerous for blacks to venture outside alone at night. He'll describe how football players had to carry box lunches to distant games because they weren't allowed in restaurants along the way. He'll tell them how history books talked of the "war of the northern invasion," not the Civil War.