Michael Jones grew up black in Arlington in the 1950s. That meant he attended black schools. When he went to the movies, he sat in the balcony. If his mother wanted to have another baby, she had to travel to the District because local hospitals wouldn't deliver babies of black women.
"This wasn't even the '60s yet," he recalled. "It was before desegregated lunch counters. It was a different way of life."
On Feb. 2, 1959, 12-year-old Michael Jones changed that way of life forever. With three black classmates, he walked past white-helmeted police officers and swarming reporters through the front door of Stratford Junior High School.
There were no riots, no fire hoses, no governor standing in the schoolhouse doorway. Arlington schools were successfully integrated, and Virginia's policy of "massive resistance" to court-ordered desegregation had been permanently breached.
"The principal said we didn't want to do anything to make this seem like . . . the Deep South," said Jones, 57. "We just went to class and sat down. It was pretty uneventful."
But nearly a half-century later, the sacrifices Jones and others in the struggle for civil rights made are seen as significant indeed. It was one of Arlington's proudest moments: the peaceful desegregation of Stratford -- the first Virginia school to integrate. The event is credited with opening other doors for blacks in education, housing and elsewhere in a white-dominated society.
To celebrate that legacy, Arlington is holding a series of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it all possible: Brown v. Board of Education.
"Brown was a crack in the door that opened up the entire relationship between the races in every aspect of American life," said Frank K. Wilson, chairman of the Arlington County School Board, which spearheaded the celebration along with the county, the local NAACP branch and the Arlington Black Ministers Association.
"And Arlington really was the leader in integrating schools in Virginia, so we thought it would be good to recognize and celebrate the anniversary," Wilson said.
The events started 10 days ago with a documentary film presentation and will culminate tomorrow, the actual anniversary of the ruling, with the dedication of a historic marker at the old Stratford school, an interactive stage presentation recounting the desegregation fight and a moment of silence at 12:52 p.m.
It was at 12:52 p.m. May 17, 1954, that Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren read the Brown decision aloud.
It was a monumental ruling. The high court declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, setting in motion the process that toppled the system of "separate but equal" educations for black and white children that had been legally enshrined by an earlier Supreme Court in 1896.
For black children, as Alfred O. Taylor Jr. remembers it, that system was anything but equal. Long before he became dean of the University of the District of Columbia, Taylor attended the old Kemper School in Arlington. It was a plain four-room schoolhouse, with dedicated teachers but no gym or cafeteria and gravel outside where the front lawn should have been.
"We would drive by the white schools and see lawns and play areas, much better-looking buildings," said Taylor, 69, who left the Arlington school after third grade to attend what were then considered the better schools of the District, as many black children did at the time.
The Brown decision was supposed to change all that, and eventually it did, but first came more court battles. In Virginia, the state adopted a policy of massive resistance to integration. Arlington defied the edict, with the county's elected School Board voting to integrate. It was replaced by a state-appointed board.
It took a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Arlington parents and students to force the issue. In September 1958, U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan ruled that four black students would enter Stratford in February.
As the historic day approached, the parents of Lawrence Grove, a white student at Stratford, were nervous about potential violence.
"It didn't mean a whole lot to the kids, but my folks were afraid there was going to be some trouble," recalled Grove, 60, who later became an elementary and middle school principal in Arlington. "They were worried someone would get hurt."
In reality, there was little or no physical violence. But the specter always hovered.
Phyllis Costley, whose daughter would enroll at Stratford in fall 1959, came home one day to find a burned cross in her yard and racial epithets spray-painted on her house.
"My husband was very upset, but it was well worth the struggle," she recalled in an interview. "It's important for the kids who are in school now to know what we went through for them to get their education."
Jones, one of the original plaintiffs, recalled that Judge Bryan was the one who chose him as one of the precedent-setting four children, looking for students who were "best prepared and most likely to fit in with other kids."
But his preparation was only beginning. Jones, along with fellow students Ronald Deskins, Gloria Thompson and Lance Newman, underwent "training" sponsored by the NAACP and church groups. "They had speakers come in and ask what we would do in certain situations," he recalled. "They just told us to be responsible, not to embarrass anybody and to do what we thought was right."
Though Jones thought there was a "good chance" of violence, the actual morning was almost anti-climactic. The four students met at the home of Deskins, down the street from the school, rode to the building in a car, walked past the reporters and police and went directly to the principal's office.
"Basically, what he said was that due to the occasion, a lot of people would probably be looking at us when we went up and down the halls," Jones said. "He said to go normally about our school day."
Jones went to his seventh-grade classroom and sat down. Fellow students were not particularly friendly, but they weren't unfriendly, either. Eventually, Jones and the others fit in and even made friends.
And with that, the system of segregation in Arlington began to crumble. Looking back on it now, people involved in the struggle say the relatively early school desegregation eventually opened up more opportunities in housing and employment.
"I would hate to think of what it would be like in Arlington and other places in the state if we had waited until the 1970s or '80s to integrate the school system," Wilson said.
Some even link the successful integration of Stratford to the beginnings of the famed "Arlington Way" of doing business -- a long-held practice of discussing issues intensively and communicating with residents about even the smallest things.
"You talk about something ad infinitum, and then you come up with a consensus and decision that meets the vast majority of people," Grove said. "I think what happened in 1959 was a beginning of that."
Today, Stratford, which was built in 1951 and named for Robert E. Lee's birthplace, is home to the school system's H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs.
For this month's commemoration of the legacy of Stratford and the Brown decision that spawned it, the key players have gradually been coming together since the fall, said Margaret Stephens-Reed, who coordinates special events for the school district and took a lead in planning the celebration.
"Everyone knew they wanted to do something," she said. "The NAACP wanted to have a program; the school system wanted to do something; the county board had the historic marker to dedicate."
Events as wide-ranging as a year-long celebration were considered, but in the end "we narrowed it down to what we can actually handle," Stephens-Reed said.
Some residents say the celebration may not focus enough on current racial issues in the increasingly diverse schools of Arlington. "Celebrations can be superficial," Taylor said. "Are we just holding a whole lot of hip-hip-hoorah and then next year it's business as usual? Or are we seizing the opportunity of the 50th anniversary?"
But Taylor, the former UDC dean, added that he is proud of the Stratford legacy. He is not alone.
"This is a great part of Arlington's history," Jones said. "I'm glad it worked out the way it did.''