By Jeremy Cox
Special to loudounextra.com
Thursday, June 12, 2008
In the fall of 1964, 102 students enrolled as freshmen at all-black Douglass High School in Leesburg. By the end of senior year, most had dropped out.
Some were forced to leave school so they could tend to family farms. Others were called to a faraway war.
The resilient corps of 44 students who stayed at Douglass through the spring of 1968 lived through a graduation season of tumultuous change. In addition to the events that helped define that year for all Americans -- the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy -- 1968 marked the end of Virginia's policy of school segregation and the end of Douglass High's role as an African American institution.
Next month, the Class of 1968 will reunite and its members will reflect on the historic transition they witnessed 40 years ago.
Their bonds to the past and to each other remain strong. The former classmates often run into one another at weddings and funerals, and when the reunion committee has needed to track down missing graduates, it has found them through friends and relatives instead of resorting to a phone book or an Internet search engine. Organizers expect about three-quarters of the class to show up for the July 11 reunion at a Holiday Inn near Dulles International Airport.
"Coming from such a small community, we were really close," said Pauline Scott, 58, who lives in Ashburn and is one of the lead organizers of the reunion. "The parents rallied around the students. The teachers were like parents."
Segregation "was part of our culture growing up," said Scott's husband Maurice, another member of the Class of '68.
Even in the waning days of the Jim Crow era, blacks living or traveling south of the Mason-Dixon line had to use the back door to enter most restaurants. Staying at a hotel was out of the question. At movie theaters, any seat outside the balcony was off limits. And going to a blacks-only school was a given.
Many Douglass alumni tell of waking up early to catch a bus for the long ride to school, a trip that typically involved passing several white schools along the way. Black students came to Douglass from all over Loudoun -- Aldie, Middleburg, Ashburn.
"I knew very few students who walked to the school," said Charles Avery, 58, who lives in Sterling and was the school's last valedictorian.
Douglass High opened in September 1941, on eight acres of land purchased with money raised by the African American community. The school was named in honor of 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
The emphasis was on vocational training. By the late 1960s, the school's programs were respected enough that some white students were bused from their regular school to take classes with blacks at Douglass in subjects such as brick masonry and cosmetology.
The facade of segregation was beginning to crack. Indeed, some black students were invited by guidance counselors to transfer from Douglass to white schools such as Loudoun County High School.
Avery was one of them. He remembers being asked in his sophomore year if he wanted to go to Loudoun County High. There was no publicity or uproar about the integration effort, he said.
After much deliberation, he elected to stay at Douglass. "Part of it was being scared of making that transition," he said.
Loretta Hall, 58, now a Loudoun County teacher living in Herndon, had friends who made the switch and encountered an uninviting atmosphere.
"I had students tell me the teachers were worse than the kids were," she said. "They said they wished they'd stayed with us."
But Joseph Peterson, a Douglass student who lived in Aldie, does not regret his decision to take an electronics class at Loudoun County High. The class, he said, helped prepare him for a career in the Navy.
"At the time, I didn't think much of it," said Peterson, a retired Navy captain who now lives in Fort Washington. He added that he was treated well at the white school.
Douglass students believed they were getting a good education, but they knew things "weren't quite equal," said Pauline Scott, who was co-editor of the yearbook and went on to become a property administrator with the U.S. Geological Survey. The school had no equipment for the chemistry lab. Teachers pushed students to do their best, but they didn't seem to push hard enough, she said.
Rumors had been churning that Douglass would be closing after the 1967-68 academic year, so it was no surprise to many when the official announcement came. Douglass's students were moved to previously all-white schools. The facility became a middle school, and later an alternative school.
Avery, a health consultant who recently retired from a government job, suspects that Douglass didn't become an integrated high school because it was considered inferior to other schools. "Why send a white kid to a black school with fewer resources?" he said.
Some members of the Class of '68 will travel great distances to attend the reunion. Among them is Carolyn Newton, 58, of Jacksonville, Fla., who remembers feeling a mixture of sadness and pride when she learned that her high school would be closing.
"It was the end of segregation," she said, "so that was a good thing."