Beyond the glow of burning crosses, historic marches and soaring speeches, it would be easy to forget some of the smaller moments that led to the passage 50 years ago last week of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Fannie W. Fitzgerald, 83, and those who love her know this danger well. Her Alzheimer’s disease gnaws into details from those fraught moments when she and three other African American educators became the first to teach in all-white classrooms in Prince William County, amid fierce resistance in Virginia to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decade-old call to integrate schools nationwide.
“That first day, Momma. Do you remember what happened that evening?” her daughter, Kim Lennon, asks on a recent afternoon, trying to tease out a few memories. “They held a meeting that evening? Was it a back-to-school night?”
“Yes. I think it was,” Fitzgerald replies with hesitation. “That’s when the parents all came to see what I was going to do.”
The drama of the Prince William teachers known as the Courageous Four is part of a digitized archive of oral histories and historical documents being assembled in commemoration of the July 2 anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Centered around events in Northern Virginia, the project — conceived by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) — is meant to preserve the details of lesser-known but still relevant milestones.
“There are all kinds of stories that are never going to get into the history books,” said Connolly, whose office is coordinating the project in conjunction with George Mason University. The collection will be unveiled during a ceremony Monday at George Mason, then posted on the Web sites of the Library of Congress, George Mason, and the library systems for Prince William and Fairfax counties.
Recorded interviews, photos and letters detail the conflicts that raged just a few dozen miles west of Washington during an era when battles in Alabama or Mississippi dominated the nation’s attention.
They tell of the “massive resistance” orchestrated by the late Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. (D) in Virginia after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, driving Prince Edward County to close its schools for five years instead of desegregating classrooms.
They document the founding of the first rural branch of the NAACP, in Falls Church, to fight efforts by local leaders to restrict blacks to one quadrant of the town after dark.
And they honor a host of smaller efforts — from voter registration drives to changes in government policy — that paved the way for a more racially equal society.
Inside a Woodbridge elder-care retirement home, Fitzgerald’s memories from that period sometimes seem to scatter in the wind. Of the Courageous Four, she advanced the furthest up the career ladder, becoming the first African American supervisor in the school system’s central office. Two of the other teachers — Maxine Coleman and Zella Brown — are still living but have not responded to invitations from Connolly’s office to participate in the archiving project. The fourth, Mary Porter, died in 1992.
On the day Fitzgerald was interviewed for the project, her mind came alive recalling how the school system’s director of personnel showed up at Antioch Mcrae, the all-black school where she taught, and told her that she was to report immediately to Fred Lynn Middle School in Woodbridge, where she’d be teaching an all-white fourth-grade class.
Although she was a beloved, confident presence at Antioch Mcrae, Fitzgerald said, she worried immediately about the first impression she’d make at Fred Lynn.
“I said: ‘Well, can you take me back to my house? Because I’ve got to change,’ ” Fitzgerald says in the video, dabbing tears of laughter from her eyes. The personnel director, Herb Saunders, did just that.
Later, away from the camera, Fitzgerald picked up the story in fits and starts.
Does she remember what outfit she chose?
“No. I don’t,” Fitzgerald said. “Things are gone. But, I had mostly quiet kids. They were just beautiful. The parents welcomed me.”
What did she say to the parents at the PTA meeting at Fred Lynn that very first evening?
“I told them what I was going to do, and how I did it,” she said. “I had no problems at all. None.”
Did she and the other three teachers bond over their shared experience?
“I think we knew each other,” Fitzgerald said, prompting a sad shake of the head from her daughter. In truth, the women had become close friends during those historic times, but that is one of the memories that has slipped away. “I can’t think of their names right now,” Fitzgerald said.
The collection also recalls the pioneering efforts of Falls Church residents Joseph Tinner, Edwin Bancroft Henderson and Mary Ellen Henderson, who helped found the Colored Citizens Protective League, which eventually became the first rural chapter of the NAACP.
In the early 20th century, the Hendersons used their gracious Maple Avenue home as a gathering spot for local black intellectuals. Mary Ellen Henderson pushed for equal education for black students in Fairfax. Edwin Henderson was known as the “grandfather of black basketball” because he introduced the game to black students in Washington. Their activism, at times, drew the attention of white supremacists.
“There have been some crosses burning in this front yard,” said their grandson, Edwin Henderson, who lives in the home and with his wife, Nikki, has gathered details of his grandparents’ stories.
In 1915, Falls Church leaders began pushing through an ordinance that would restrict blacks from most sections of town after dark, including the Hendersons’ neighborhood.
They and Tinner — a stonemason who owned a home nearby that later became known as “Tinner Hill” — formed the Colored Citizens Protective League to defeat such “sundown” legislation, both in Falls Church and nationwide. The effort was headquartered at Tinner’s house, which was torn down during the 1960s. Plans are underway to develop the half-acre site into a historic park that tells the story of the early civil rights movement in Virginia.
The Northern Virginia civil rights archive “illustrates the efforts of a community to conquer over injustice,” the younger Edwin Henderson said on a recent day, sitting inside a sunlit living room filled with old family photos.
Ralph Smith, the 70-year-old president of the Prince William County NAACP chapter, agrees, though until recently he shared little about his own history. He grew up during segregated times in Virginia’s Prince Edward County, a jurisdiction famous for sending its white children to private academies to avoid sharing classrooms with black children. As a young man, Smith joined voter registration drives and sit-ins, launching a life of activism that continues today.
Yet Smith, who is also involved in the archiving project, spent years making sure that his children did not know about the police dogs, fire hoses and hurled drugstore perfume bottles that he dodged when he was young.
In an era where the U.S. president is black and African Americans have achieved considerable economic success in increasingly multicultural Northern Virginia, he explained, it can be uncomfortable to dredge up the ugly past.
“I guess I wanted to shield them from something,” Smith said about his now-adult children. “They grew up in a very integrated environment. I guess, subconsciously, I didn’t want to mess with that.”
The hesitancy to share is also part of an uneasy but growing feeling that there are fewer people around who want to listen to those stories, several participants in the project said.
Fatigue over what it means to have Barack Obama as president has led to a “so what?” type of attitude, said Lillie Jessie, a Prince William County School Board member whose triumphs as a teacher and career administrator in that district also are heralded in the project.
“They say: ‘Why do you still want to talk about your race?’ ” Jessie said. “It’s almost like: ‘Get over it.’ ”
But experiences from back then continue to influence her life in subtle, sometimes ironic ways.
Jessie said her time spent protesting against “whites-only” businesses as a South Carolina college student has led her to fight for other underdog causes, including a controversial indoor swimming pool at a new Prince William County high school that would mostly benefit white swim team members.
“I realized these kids were a minority in the sense that they’re not in the sport of choice,” she said. “It’s like they’re underdogs, I guess. And I can advocate for them.”
Smith, likewise, said he continues to register voters in Northern Virginia. “If you don’t understand the history, you’ll have the wool pulled over your eyes today,” he said, referring to a current debate in Congress over whether to strengthen the Voting Rights Act.
Fannie Fitzgerald’s working days are far behind her.
An elementary school was named after her in 2008 — on a street in Woodbridge that bears the name of one of her daughters, Olympic gold medal sprinter Benita Fitzgerald Mosley. Fitzgerald said she remembers the day when the school name was approved, which she said still “just makes me feel so good.”
“My only wish is that my mother and my father would have been there to see that,” Fitzgerald said, launching into a clear description of how her parents pushed all 11 of their children to get an education.
She can’t remember the names of her former students, or whether any ever stopped by years later to say hello. But she does recall how she loved to take them on field trips to Williamsburg, Jamestown and other historic sites.
“I would get a bus and the parents would go with me and the children would actually see what we had been talking about,” she said, smiling softly at the thought.