Just inside Luther Jackson Middle School, a colorful mural greets John Simo as he arrives for classes each day. It depicts graceful Vietnamese women in traditional conical hats, South American women in bright red, yellow and green dresses and people from the Middle East. There's a black girl in jeans next to a white boy in a T-shirt and baggy pants. The students who painted it titled their work "The World of L.J.M.S."
So John, a seventh-grader, said he was pretty shocked when he found out recently that his school used to represent a far different world. Years ago, he learned, Jackson was only for black students, who weren't allowed at other Fairfax high schools.
"It's so hard to think about how people were so segregated, and now everybody gets along," John said. "When I first read about segregation, I couldn't believe the things that people did to each other."
Luther Jackson Middle School opened its doors in 1954 as Fairfax County's sole high school for black students, marking the first time the county's African American teenagers did not have to travel to the District or Prince William County for a high school education. This year, as the school marks its 50th anniversary, teachers and administrators are turning to their school's past to provide today's students with valuable lessons in history and tolerance.
"We feel like there's a responsibility here -- the history comes with a responsibility," said Pamela Collier, a reading specialist at Jackson.
Added Principal Carol Robinson, "The school is a concrete example of what happened."
Worn yearbooks from the school's early days have been pulled out of storage, and students are learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. On Saturday, there will be an open house for former students and staff, and on Tuesday evening, Robinson will be joined by several of her predecessors for a "parade of principals" reception.
Perhaps most important, former students are planning visits to civics and social studies classes to share their memories of life in a segregated society -- conversations that will bring history to life for the middle school students.
"These are people who lived it and experienced it," Robinson said. "The students will realize this is a real thing that happened."
Collier, who has researched the school's history, said Luther Jackson was built only after members of the black community, tired of sending their children to Manassas or the District, fought for a school closer to home. "Fairfax County went to the black population and said, 'If you provide the land, we'll build a school' . . . and they did," she said.
The red brick school on Gallows Road in the Falls Church area welcomed its first students in September 1954, four months after the Supreme Court declared that separate was not equal. It was named for prominent Virginia historian and educator Luther P. Jackson, who headed the History Department at Virginia State College in Petersburg and founded the Negro Voters League of Virginia.
It wasn't until September 1960 that 19 black Fairfax students began classes at eight previously "white only" high schools, according to the county. It took five more years for Fairfax County schools to become completely integrated.
Today, Jackson has about 1,050 students from 60 countries. Robinson said that 60 percent of the students are minorities and that 40 languages are spoken in the hallways. Spanish is the most prevalent first language among the 70 percent of students whose first language is not English, followed by Korean and Vietnamese.
Ron Reaves, 62, a former student who heads the school's active alumni association, said he's planning to return to the classrooms in February for Black History Month. Reaves, who was quarterback of the school's football team, said he'll tell the children that it was dangerous for blacks to venture outside alone at night. He'll describe how football players had to carry box lunches to distant games because they weren't allowed in restaurants along the way. He'll tell them how history books talked of the "war of the northern invasion," not the Civil War.
"I believe you have to learn from history or you get in trouble," said Reaves, who lives in Dumfries.
Robinson said it's especially worthwhile to draw on the school's past in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. She said there was concern that students might learn to discriminate against people who are Middle Eastern. She said Jackson's history "teaches them we must be inclusive . . . and not make judgments."
Reaves and other alumni stressed that although they grew up in a turbulent time, Jackson was a place where young black students thrived. Reaves said it was "an oasis" in the midst of a growing civil rights movement.
Football and basketball games at Jackson were popular social events that drew people from across the black community, and the bleachers would always be packed, Reaves recalled. There were sock hops in the gym and dances in the cafeteria. School photos show smiling homecoming queens, cheerleaders and sports teams.
Carolyn Edwards, 61, who graduated from Jackson in 1961, said she and her classmates used outdated books and had meager supplies. But she said dedicated teachers made up for the lack of resources by making home visits and keeping in close contact with parents.
"It was more like a family," said Edwards, who lives in Reston.
Lifelong friendships were formed in the school's early days, and many students from that era still stay in touch. About 19 members of the school's alumni association meet monthly, and many more come to dinner dances and other events. The group has provided college scholarships of $2,000 to $4,000 to about 20 students who are descendants of Jackson's early alumni.
Edwards said one of the alumni association's goals is to make sure the past is not forgotten.
One recent afternoon at the school, eighth-grader Sabrina Castellanos listened with amazement as Katie Smith, a former student, described the early days of integration in Fairfax during an interview for this article.
Smith, 55, who lives in Woodbridge, attended Luther Jackson in the early 1960s, but as the 1963-64 school year approached, she got a postcard in the mail explaining that she had been assigned to J.E.B. Stuart High School. Smith arrived as one of five black students in a class of about 470.
Some days the bus driver wouldn't stop to pick her up, and, when she was able to hop on, there were days the white students wouldn't let her sit down, Smith said. But she said she eventually made some friends among her white classmates.
"For a lot of people, it was fear of the unknown," Smith said. "I really don't want to convey the message that it was a struggle. It was the way life was at the time."
Sabrina said she had learned about segregation, but it was something else to imagine what it was like to be in Smith's shoes.
"I think it's horrible," she said. "I don't know how I would have reacted."
Eighth-grader Michael Latham, one of the students who was interviewed along with the alumni, said he didn't know much about segregation before his recent school lessons, and he was surprised to learn that blacks and whites didn't even share water fountains. "The school has come a long way, from all-black to 60 countries," he said.
Luther Jackson remained a high school until 1965, when it was turned into an integrated middle school, officials said. It's been renovated and expanded since then and now is where the county School Board meets.
One thing that hasn't changed much is the old gymnasium with its wooden bleachers. Reeves said he can still remember basketball games that were so crowded fans would stand at either end of the court. He said he remains close friends with many of his high school friends.
"We all care about each other," Reaves said. "We're all in our fifties or sixties, and we feel a sense of accomplishment that we made it to where we are."
John Simo and his schoolmates say they are thankful that Reaves and others are sharing their memories.
"It's good to know how things worked," John said. "If you can't keep it alive, you won't know where we came from, how we have changed."