Growing up in Purcellville, Carolyn Holmes began each school year with old, often outdated textbooks that were marked with the names of students unfamiliar to her. Who were these kids, she wondered, and why didn't she ever get to open a brand-new textbook?
Holmes didn't learn the answers to those questions until she was a high school sophomore, in 1963. That year, Holmes and a handful of other black students entered the newly integrated Loudoun Valley High School, and, for the first time in her school career, she was issued textbooks fresh from the publisher, just like the white students got. The new books replaced those that had been sent to Holmes's previous school, Douglass High School in Leesburg, the school for blacks.
"I never really noticed a difference until then," Holmes said. "But at Valley, I had access to things we simply didn't have at Douglass."
Holmes, now a Reston resident, returned to Loudoun County on Saturday to share her recollections at a symposium at Eastern Loudoun Regional Library in Sterling on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The event was sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Loudoun, like the rest of Virginia, was part of an organized movement of massive resistance to the decision by southern states. The county did not fully desegregate its schools until 1968, when forced by a judge, although it happened without major incident.
Author Elaine E. Thompson said the commonly held belief that Loudoun's black residents quietly accepted the situation was false.
"Loudoun was a breed apart. There was not open defiance on either side, but instead there was an undercurrent of tension," said Thompson, who was a student at Douglass before Brown.
Thompson said that, according to School Board minutes, county officials knew Loudoun's black and white schools were not equal and found "creative ways to get around" the desegregation mandate. Rather than engage in protest marches or civil disobedience, however, the county's black community aggressively pressed for integration and equality within the system, she said. They hoped to avoid school closings that other Virginia towns and counties had initiated to prevent desegregation.
"There was strong support for public schools in Loudoun County, and few people wanted to see the schools closed," Thompson said. "Blacks continued to push as hard as they dared. Whites resisted as hard as they dared. And you know what the county motto is, 'We byde our time.' "
As their parents doggedly pressed for desegregation, the lives of black children growing up in Loudoun continued to contrast sharply with that of whites -- and not just in the classroom. At the Tally Ho Theatre in Leesburg, for example, blacks waited at a separate ticket window until all the white patrons had been served at the main box office. Blacks entered the theater through a separate door and viewed performances from the all-black balcony section.
In Purcellville, Holmes and her sister Pamela bought ice cream at a local soda fountain, but they weren't allowed to sit in the shop. Pamela Holmes said blacks usually took their purchases home rather than consume their treats while standing at the end of the counter, as the law required.
"When there was segregation like at Tally Ho, that was not because of the people who owned the establishment," said Louetta Watkins, 77, who described herself as a political activist with the Loudoun NAACP. "It was because of a law that said whites and blacks could not occupy the same room at the same time."
Watkins, who has lived in Loudoun for 50 years, said shop owners who disobeyed discriminatory laws risked losing their business licenses and their livelihoods.
"It was a different time. It was just how things were," Carolyn Holmes said. "And I was a kid. I didn't question the rules."
Alvin Sowards, 70, of Leesburg recalled how he was hired as a teacher at an all-white school in the Hampton Roads area after Brown. Sowards said his principal told him it was permissible to express his opinions about religion and politics. Offering up his views on race -- if they differed from school policy -- was an entirely different matter.
"He told me, 'If you have a different outlook on race, you'd better keep your mouth shut,' " said Sowards, now a substitute principal at Rolling Ridge Elementary School in Sterling. "At the time, I was young and didn't really understand the significance of that."
Sowards said that about six months after he started the job, students told him that a fellow teacher had urged them to remain on the lookout for black children who might try to enter the school building during the academic day. Sowards said the students told him they had been instructed to beat the children with baseball bats.
"I told them [the students] I didn't think that was appropriate, and we had a discussion about it," Sowards said. "Within 15 minutes, I was called to the principal's office."
Holmes and other former students who spoke at the symposium said there were no significant problems at Valley after desegregation, other than an occasional racial slur. Holmes, however, said her cousins, who entered Loudoun County High School after that school was integrated, reported being bullied and beaten. "They had problems for about two years," she said.
Another symposium panelist, former Loudoun County High student Phyllis Cook-Taylor, nodded in agreement. She said separate proms were held at Loudoun County, including hers in 1972. "It was by choice," she quickly added. "The students wanted it that way."
Those in attendance at Saturday's event voiced the need for continued improvement for all students of color.
Rhonda Bady-Hill of Middleburg expressed concern about limitations on students' ability to succeed, such as school size and activity fees that she said tend to exclude children whose families cannot afford the extra costs. Aeronia Poole of Leesburg said the small numbers of black teachers as well as the scarcity of children of color in honors classes dismay her.
"We're not quite there yet. We need to be very diligent to see that all kids are treated equally across the board," Poole said. "And, as parents, we need to support our kids and let them know we have high expectations of them."
Saturday's symposium was videotaped as part of Thomas Balch Library's effort to record and preserve the oral history of Loudoun's African American community. Tapes and transcripts of residents interviewed are available at the library in Leesburg, 703-737-7195.