2 schools' students 'integrated' after 50 years

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.

Black parents, who had asked for a high school for years, had been told there was no suitable land. So black leaders raised money and bought property, deeding the land to the school district for $1.

Thus did Frederick Douglass High open in 1941. The school system provided desks. Black parents raised money for chairs, stage curtains, a piano, uniforms and library books, according to graduates' and historical accounts.

Kelly spoke of the dedication of teachers who "gave us everything we needed. They made us believe in ourselves."

Kelly graduated second in a class of 33, went on to business school and started a 35-year career in the federal government.

She does not recall wanting to attend the other school, but she remembers that blacks could not swim in Leesburg's public pool, that the movie theater did not allow blacks on the main floor and that the restaurant next to Douglass banned her from sitting down.

A mile and a half away, at gleaming Loudoun County High, W. Bowman Cutter was named "Most Likely to Succeed" and went on to Harvard. He was aware of segregation, he said, but "at that point for most kids, you just accept it as it is."

That changed in 1963, when Cutter heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington and began to grasp "the humanity of it all," he said. "By getting out of the community and looking back, you woke up to realize, 'This is really bad, this is wrong.' "

Cutter would occasionally e-mail Dottie Plitt Gladstone, the organizer of most of their class activities. In 2008, during Barack Obama's historic candidacy, Gladstone observed that their class, despite holding reunions, had never met their black "classmates." Maybe we should change that, Cutter replied.

Last year, Gladstone got in touch with Arnold Ambers, president of Douglass's alumni association. He happened to be a 1960 graduate.

Word spread through Douglass's class: The white graduates wanted to get together.

Not everyone embraced the idea, but about a third of the Douglass class signed on, joined by about 15 Loudoun graduates.

"If you would have told me this 50 years ago, I would not have believed it," said Douglass graduate Sheila Bryant Coates.

"Probably some people were apprehensive and wanted to know if there was a hidden agenda," Ambers said. "I said, 'Well, I'm going with an open mind.' "

A different view

Amid some jitters, the get-acquainted night arrived in September. Dinner at Magnolia's at the Mill was set for 5 p.m., the idea being that a couple of hours would be enough.

It was not. People arrived early. They stayed late. They laughed. Photographs of grandchildren were handed across dinner tables.

Douglass alum Lawrence Newman got cold sitting under a vent - and Gladstone draped her purple scarf around his neck. He wore it all night.

Among the 40 people, about half were white, half black; place settings were arranged to put together people who didn't know each other.

Most who could come did, but there were some who took a wait-and-see approach.

Cutter apologized to the Douglass graduates, saying he regretted that the occasion was 50 years later than it should have been. "It's 50 years of friendships we didn't have," he said.

Jimmie Roberts, a 1956 graduate married to Peggy, a member of the Class of '60, delivered a vivid history of Douglass, proudly noting that their daughter, Muriel Roberts Heanue, not only attended Loudoun after it integrated in 1968 but is now an assistant principal there.

"As you have more life experience, you have more in common," said Emily Reid Karam, a Loudoun graduate. "People have had their personal illnesses, maybe the death of a parent or a spouse. They have raised their children. They see life in a different way."

A couple of hours into the night, the chatter went silent.

Douglass alumni implored Frances Thomas Summers, whom they think of as their own Mahalia Jackson, to sing something. Without music or microphone, she closed her eyes and in a low soprano performed "Jesus Loves Me."

Just the start

This month, some of the alumni walked the hallways of each other's schools. They have stayed in touch - planning a bigger event next summer, chatting about a possible Web site and visits to schools to share their story.

Now, as they toured what was once Douglass, they talked about how integration was finally happening for them. At age 68, they are reclaiming some of what segregation took away.

"The friends we would've had," said Sheila Kelly.

"The friends we should've had," said Peggy Roberts.

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