Signs of Family's Perseverance All Around

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008

The new Fannie W. Fitzgerald Elementary School in Prince William County is like a temple to all things Fitzgerald.

The school, which opened this month with 800 students, is named for an African American teacher who helped integrate the county school system in the 1960s. The campus sits on Benita Fitzgerald Drive, named for her older daughter, Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, a Prince William high school track legend who won an Olympic gold medal in 1984.

To further cement the family imprint at this address, her younger daughter, Kim Lennon, took a position at the school as an instructional technology resource teacher. And while she was at it -- because why not take full advantage of the serendipity? -- Lennon transferred her daughters Olivia and Antoinette, kindergartners, to Fitzgerald Elementary.

"Someone, a friend, called me up one day and said, 'The new school needs to be named after you.' They insisted," the Fitzgerald matriarch, now 78, recalled. "Because of them, this has happened."

But this packaging of Fitzgeraldia on about 12 acres of eastern Prince William is not the mere result of phone calls and a school-naming committee's decision. It is the distillation of moments in history encompassing the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

It might not have happened had advocates not overcome awkward, emotional and very local battles. There was debate whether to name the school after someone alive or someone dead -- a firefighter, the county's first to die in the line of duty. There was also a boundary dispute involving nearby schools that was tinged with hurt and confused feelings over, ironically, race and economic status.

The chronology starts with Fannie, born in 1930, youngest of 11 children, daughter of a homemaker and farmer/Baptist minister who lived south of Richmond. She attended all-black schools without electricity or restrooms, living near a larger white school. To her, the segregation was what it was; she felt siloed, but she didn't feel ill will toward better-off whites.

"We knew nothing different. We went to black schools, we went to black churches. I don't know what else I can say," Fitzgerald said. "I never got into fights with the whites. My sisters were telling me once they used to get into fights with them, whites calling them names. We all laughed about it."

Her mother, skilled in so much, especially canning, died when she was 11. She graduated high school in 1947 and entered the all-black Virginia Union University. She felt prejudice occasionally, she said, because the school had a white math teacher who she felt treated her and other blacks impatiently. "I switched my major from math to elementary education," she said.

After graduating in 1952, Fitzgerald started teaching in Amelia County, Va., near the community where she was raised. Then came the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which ordered school desegregation. Fitzgerald eventually landed a job at a Prince William elementary school.

One day in 1964, she was asked to meet with the county superintendent. He told her that she and a few other black teachers had been picked to teach at white schools to ease the school system into integration before students would be mixed.

"At that time, when white people asked blacks to do something, they did it. Otherwise, we would have been punished severely," she said. "I was nervous, but I knew it was something I had to do."

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald's daughters attended Prince William schools, starting in the late 1960s and '70s. Benita, who graduated from Gar-Field Senior High School, earned a spot on the 1980 Olympic team. But the United States boycotted the games because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Disappointed, Benita made the team again in 1984. She won gold in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 12.84 seconds, becoming the first U.S. woman in 52 years to win the gold in hurdles. Prince William threw her a parade, and she rode in a red convertible down Dale City Boulevard to shouts of "Benita, you're incredible!" Even the "Ladies of Jazzercize" performed.

A few years later, the county named a street after her. "One day, I got a call. I thought, 'Really?' " said Benita, 47, now chief executive of Women in Cable Telecommunications. "It was a short, little street. Then they started building townhouses and extended it far. I remember being thrilled."

Meanwhile, Fannie Fitzgerald was promoted to supervisor of seven elementary schools. But Benita said her mother wondered whether she was getting the respect she deserved from principals and teachers. "She was like, 'I've gotten this job . . . but people are still treating me as if I was cleaning rooms.' Some of it led to her stepping down" and becoming a teacher again, Benita said.

Fitzgerald retired from education in 1988 but continued volunteering in the schools. In fall 2007, Prince William was looking to name the new school. With Fitzgerald's blessing, two friends lobbied the School Board on her behalf. But a question arose: Can a school be named after someone still alive? Many presumed that it was not permitted. "Several people were hesitant to follow up with me," said Lillie Jessie, a friend of Fitzgerald's from the First Mount Zion Baptist church choir and a Prince William elementary school principal.

In January, Jessie and others went before the board to make the pitch. They dressed in red, Fitzgerald's favorite color, also what Benita wore during her gold medal parade. It was down to Fitzgerald and Kyle R. Wilson, a rookie 24-year-old firefighter who was killed last year while trying to save people in a burning house.

The board voted unanimously for Fitzgerald's name. It turned out that living people were eligible.

The school's opening led to disputes between neighboring communities at a board meeting that touched on socioeconomic class and race. Some parents from Montclair Elementary, a school filled largely with students from well-off families, many of them white, were concerned about the effect of an influx of students from low-income neighborhoods, many of them minorities, and what that would mean for the school's resources.

"I felt bad in the end," said James Dudek, a Montclair parent who called the process unfair at a board meeting. "People saw it as a racist situation," but that was not the case, he said. It was more about whether parents had an equal voice in the boundary-drawing process, he said.

After Fannie W. Fitzgerald Elementary was named, Kim Lennon got a call from its new principal. "She said, 'Listen, we're making history here, and I haven't heard from you,' " recalled Lennon, who worked at a middle school at the time. "I went in for an interview. I liked what I saw. I feel the full weight of it now, especially having my kids here."

One element of the new campus won't have a "Fitzgerald" in its title. This week, a ribbon-cutting was held at the school playground. It was named after Kyle Wilson.

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