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Maydell Casey Belk Dies; Fought Segregation in Alexandria Schools

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005

Maydell Casey Belk didn't see herself as a social activist until one too many rainy mornings drenched her two oldest daughters as they waited for an overdue school bus that would take them across town to an all-black elementary school. An all-white school was just two blocks away.

She called up the NAACP and said "We're in ," thus joining another African American family in a 1959 court case that forced an end to segregated schools in Alexandria.

Mrs. Belk, 72, died April 29 at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington of liver cancer. She had previously had larynx and breast cancer. She was a lifelong Alexandria resident.

The suit was one of a handful that demanded that the state of Virginia comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education . Joining the suit was not an easy decision. Virginia was engaged in "massive resistance" to desegregation, and some counties abandoned public education altogether rather than integrate. There were many incidents of racial tension: In southwestern Virginia, a cross was burned in the front yard of a black family whose children were enrolled in an all-white school. In Alexandria, an elementary school cook was fired for participating in the NAACP lawsuit.

"The city of Alexandria was fighting against it, saying it would be emotionally damaging to us because the kids were not prepared," said Mrs. Belk's daughter Judy Belk, now vice president of the West Coast office for Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers in Oakland, Calif.

U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan issued the desegregation order, and in January 1960, Judy Belk and Deborah Bradby entered first grade at the all-white Minnie Howard Elementary School, as did their three older siblings. Four other black students enrolled in formerly all-white Alexandria public schools that day.

"Mrs. Belk really was a pioneer," said Deborah Bradby-Lytle, now an art teacher in Alexandria public schools. "As I look back, I felt she and my parents were very brave to want to make this necessary change."

Throughout her life, Mrs. Belk did not seek out conflict, but neither did she allow others to take advantage of her. As a shift supervisor at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center for 29 years, she was known for being strict but fair.

"You knew where you stood with Mrs. Belk. If you worked for her, she made you accountable," said Donna Howey, a secretary who worked with Mrs. Belk there until her 1998 retirement. "Maydell had six children of her own, and she raised two grandchildren, so . . . she took nothing from those kids. Over the years, several children came back, mostly girls, to visit her and say hello and let her know how well they'd turned out."

Mrs. Belk grew up in a section of Alexandria near the Episcopal Seminary, not far from Alexandria's wealthy white section.

She graduated from the old Parker-Gray High School, where she played basketball, volleyball, field hockey and softball. Thirty-nine years after her graduation, she was inducted into the Parker-Gray Memorial Sports Hall of Fame.

"She could take care of herself," her sister, Joyce Sanchez, said. "She was tall, almost six feet tall, and she had presence. When she walked into a room with that height, she had the power. With her vibrant personality, everyone knew her."

In 1965, the Belks scraped together $500 for a down payment on a new brick house in an Alexandria-sponsored urban renewal project in "Mud Town," an area adjacent to T.C. Williams High School. It was the first time the family had indoor plumbing.

"She was a happy spirit," said her sister. "She enjoyed life and didn't let the little things bother her." She needed that personality during her triple bouts of cancer, including one that took her voice. And in 1979, her oldest child, Vickie L. Belk, was slain. The killer has not been found.

Mrs. Belk was a lifelong member of Oakland Baptist Church in Alexandria, which her grandfather, John Wesley Casey, helped found in 1888. She enjoyed traveling, playing cards and working with her husband in their flower garden, which won a city award last year.

In addition to her daughter Judy Belk, of Oakland, Calif., and her sister, of Alexandria, survivors include her husband of 54 years, Lonnie Belk of Alexandria; four other children, Kay Belk-Dailey of Fairfield, Calif., Aprile Belk of Accokeek, Granada Belk of Troy, Va., and Lonnie Belk Jr. of Waldorf; a brother, Thomas Casey of Wichita Falls, Tex.; and seven grandchildren.

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