2 schools' students 'integrated' after 50 years

The 1960 grads of segregated high schools in Leesburg, Va., seek their own form of integration 50 years later.
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 8:45 PM

It's been 50 years since Peggy Robinson Roberts and her classmates in Leesburg graduated from segregated high schools, in separate ceremonies. Back then, teens at all-black Douglass High knew little about their counterparts at all-white Loudoun County. They didn't sit in the same classes, play on the same football fields or sing in the same glee clubs.

Now, after almost a lifetime apart, their shared history of racial segregation has taken an unexpected turn. They have met, traded memories and struck up the kind of friendships they might've enjoyed five decades ago had America been a different place.

"It's never too late," Roberts, 68, said the other day, showing a few of her new friends around Douglass, now an alternative school. "People may ask, 'Why now?' But I don't care why now. The important thing is it's happened."

A month earlier, white and black members of the Class of 1960 gathered in Purcellville for dinner - a get-acquainted evening for about 40 people born through an e-mail exchange between two white alumni.

The belated coming-together is a rare occurrence, say school experts, noting that many schools are becoming resegregated because of housing patterns and school district boundaries.

"The thing that is striking to people once it happens is how deeply similar people are," said Gary Orfield, an expert on desegregation at the University of California at Los Angeles. "They find they have so many overlapping values and attachments and dreams."

That's what the 1960 graduates have discovered, even as they recall the past and its injustices. All-white Loudoun had a cafeteria, a football field, new textbooks, and advanced courses such as physics and trigonometry.

Not so at Douglass. "We lived in the same county, but it was two different worlds," recalls Arnold Ambers, a Douglass graduate.

John McLaughlin, a Loudoun graduate, said that as a student, "We used to hear 'separate but equal.' Well, it was separate, but there was never any equality about it."

So many years had passed that he and other white graduates wondered whether the idea even had a shot.

"They could have said, 'You guys are really late, and the heck with you,' " he said. "But that's not what happened."

When Sheila Pinkney Kelly was in high school - wearing pressed blouses, skirts and dresses - Loudoun County was a rural outpost of 20,000 or so people, and Douglass, without the amenities of the whites' school, was nonetheless a symbol of black accomplishment in a Jim Crow world.

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