An incident at Fairfax County's George Marshall High School during which a white student appeared in a skit in blackface has infuriated black students and their parents, causing them to ask the school system to look closely at attitudes and practices at the school.
At a meeting with a school human relations specialist Monday night, the disgruntled parents called the incident "the last straw" in what they see as a growing sense of racial isolation at the school.
"It was a totally ignorant, low-class putdown on black people," said Paula Johnson, a black parent whose son Paul is a 10th grader at Marshall, before the meeting. "My son deserves to get a good education in a safe, worry-free environment. Why should he have to be subjected to something like this?"
"This thing happened and we are not condoning it," said Marshall High Principal Joe A. Michael. "We took some disciplinary action. I can understand the frustrations of some of the parents."
At the meeting, at Union Baptist Church in Vienna, black students complained of being left out of extracurricular activities and recounted what they felt were examples of prejudice from the school's administration. There are 74 black students in an enrollment of 1,397 at the school near Tysons Corner.
Fairfax County School Superintendent William Burkholder has made equal education for blacks a top priority in the county, directing principals to do whatever is necessary to integrate them into the social as well as the educational environment.
But some Marshall parents point to the recent after-school skit as proof that not enough is being done at Marshall.
The "Dating Game" assembly, an after school activity on Feb. 13, was attended by very few blacks at the school, parents said. In addition to wearing blackface makeup, the student spoke in "black dialect," Johnson said. Students attending the program said the intent was to mock a white girl in the skit, who had been dating a black student.
One youth, who attended the assembly but did not want to be identified, said, "One of the white boys said to the boy in blackface: 'You can't come to my house, 'cause you're too black.' They were laughing. Everyone knows the boy in blackface is a bigot. He's always calling people 'nigger.' It's getting real tense out here. Something's about to blow up in this area."
But at the school yesterday, white students questioned about the assembly were either unaware of the student's action or did not think it was racially motivated.
"I haven't heard any black students talking about it," said James Ortte, a Marshall senior. "I can understand why the black students were offended, but I know [the youth who wore the blackface makeup] and I don't think he meant it that way."
Although few black students attended the assembly, word of the incident spread quickly through their group. After black students rushed home to tell their parents about the program, their parents met with principal Michael and gave him a list of grievances and recommendations, including more faculty encouragement of participation by blacks in school activities.
"Black students don't participate in extracurricular activities at Marshall because they don't feel wanted," said Janie Watkins, one of the parents who met with Michael. "The blacks cannot make the Georgia Girls pompon group or the cheerleading squad. The judging panels are all-white. We want some blacks on the panels."
The principal has been meeting with both black and white students since the incident, according to Marshall High senior Rhonda Hammond. "In the meeting I attended, one of the white students said he thought [the blackface makeup] was okay because one of the administrators was in the room when the student put it on," Hammond said.
Rhonda's mother, Marie Hammond, who said she went to the school after Rhonda called her, crying, said there was a fistfight between the student who wore the blackface and a black student.
Both of the students were suspended for a day, according to Marie Hammond. However, Michael would not discuss the disciplinary action other than to say "action was taken against two students."
"I realize there are some strong feelings on this issue," Michael said. "Sometimes something like this creates a sensitivity and people get concerned."
Michael said he did not believe racism is widespread at Marshall. "I've talked to quite a few people on the staff, including several minorities, and through the feedback I get, they haven't seen what these parents are talking about," he said.
He said he is willing to meet regularly with the concerned parents and has suggested they attend the meetings of the school's equity committee.
Herman Howard, Area III superintendent, is awaiting a report from the human relations specialist who met with parents Monday. "Next, we will try to bring the community together with the principal and administrators and try to work out a mutual plan for action," Howard said.