Neil Sullivan; Defied Racist School Policy

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Neil V. Sullivan, 90, a schools administrator who rose to national prominence for defying a Virginia county's racist educational policies, died Aug. 6 at his home in Meredith, N.H. He had congestive heart failure.

After the controversy in south-central Virginia's Prince Edward County, Dr. Sullivan oversaw the racial integration of schools in Berkeley, Calif., and was Massachusetts's education commissioner during desegregation tensions there.

Dr. Sullivan began his career teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Glencliff in his native New Hampshire. He advanced quickly through his motivation and political acumen, associating himself with such Democratic Party leaders as Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and the Kennedy family.

In the late 1950s, as a schools superintendent on Long Island, N.Y., he established "nongraded" schools that allowed students to be grouped by the rate at which they learned rather than traditional ordering by age. That provided vital experience for his Virginia assignment.

After the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, a "massive resistance" movement grew in Virginia, gaining widespread political support. In an extreme move, Prince Edward school officials in 1959 shut public schools in their poor, rural district, leaving nearly 2,000 black students without formal schooling.

After Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 march on Washington, President John F. Kennedy paid particular attention to Prince Edward. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called Harvard University's education department to recommend an able administrator. The college tapped Dr. Sullivan as a leading candidate.

In 1963, he was named superintendent of a privately financed and nongraded "free school system" in Prince Edward. About 1,600 blacks and a handful of whites enrolled, and the educational gap among all students was apparent immediately. Some 14-year-olds read like second-graders, and others could not read.

Citing flaws in testing, he said IQ test findings showed that among children who were asked to identify whether a hatchet or toothbrush was the object most associated with daybreak, many chose the hatchet because they chopped wood at dawn.

To improve test scores, he kept the schools open until 5:30 p.m. weekdays and on Saturdays. He hired black teachers and white teachers, and he brought aboard his educator wife, Martha Ross Sullivan.

He spoke on the radio about the importance of education. He invited performing arts groups to the school, as well as Bobby Mitchell, the first black player for the Washington Redskins.

Meanwhile, Dr. Sullivan's home was shot at, the roof of his white Buick convertible was slashed and he fielded threatening phone calls at all hours. "It was a living hell," he later said.

The school experiment lasted the academic year, after which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the county's refusal to fund public schools was unconstitutional.

The son of Irish-immigrant laborers, Neil Vincent Sullivan was born Dec. 24, 1914, in Manchester, N.H.

He was a 1939 graduate of Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts. He received a master's degree in education from Columbia University in 1941 and a doctorate in education from Harvard University in 1956. He served as a Navy communications officer in the Pacific, North Atlantic and Mediterranean during World War II.

As Massachusetts's education commissioner from 1969 to 1972, he endured verbal battles during state enforcement of school integration policy. His nemeses included Louise Day Hicks and John J. Kerrigan, Boston activists and officials who tapped into racial and class discontent to propel their political careers.

After rumored threats to his family, he left for a teaching position at Long Beach State University in California. He became education department chairman and retired in 1984. He returned to New Hampshire in 1997, after the death of his wife.

He was the lead author of three books: "Bound for Freedom: An Educator's Adventures in Prince Edward County, Virginia" (1965); "Now Is the Time: Integration in the Berkeley Schools" (1969); and "Walk, Run, or Retreat: The Modern School Administrator" (1971).

Survivors include two sons, Roger Sullivan of Marblehead, Mass., and Michael Sullivan of Moultonborough, N.H.; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company