Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect name for the former seventh-grade math teacher at Stratford. His name is Herbert Ware. The story has been updated.
When Ronald Deskins, Lance Newman and Mike Jones retraced the concrete path to the back entrance of the Stratford school building Tuesday, there were no police officers lining the way. There was no anxiety or fear of violent reprisal.
It was vastly different from their walk into the building exactly 57 years prior, when they — along with Gloria Thompson — became the first black students to integrate a public school in Virginia, where elected officials fought to keep black children from attending school with whites. On their first day, a long line of police officers ensured their safe passage to the building and a gaggle of reporters documented their every step, down to what Deskins had for breakfast. Minutes, hours and days later, other black students would make the same harrowing journey into schools that had previously been off-limits to them.
To mark the 57th anniversary of their arrival, the trio shared their memories before an audience of students from H-B Woodlawn, a magnet program for sixth- through 12th-graders that is now housed in the building. They were joined by Alfred Taylor Jr., who attended schools in pre-integration Arlington, and Herbert Ware, their former seventh-grade math teacher.
That day in 1959, his math class was fraught with tension, Ware recalled.
“The atmosphere in the class was icy. I mean stiff, formal; students spoke softly,” Ware said. In the teachers’ lounge, Ware remembered his colleagues talking disparagingly about the efforts to integrate, equating them to “the worst thing that could ever happen to mankind.” An angry white student shouted a string of expletives at the principal who had welcomed the black students to the school, calling him “a n----- lover.”
The men recalled students being civil to them, with the exception of a few who regularly demeaned them with racial slurs. But it was not easy to make friends. Many school social events had been canceled, and black students were barred from playing sports.
“It was pretty quiet, pretty tense, but civil,” Newman recalled, remembering walking through a phalanx of police officers to get into the building.
“It was a pretty nerve-racking situation,” Deskins recalled of that first day at school.
The anniversary carries extra weight this year, as public officials debate how to commemorate Stratford’s role in desegregating Virginia’s public schools. The building, which houses a program for children with special needs as well as H-B Woodlawn, is set to be renovated to accommodate a neighborhood middle school. H-B Woodlawn plans to move to a new building in Rosslyn.
County and school officials are moving toward historic designation but will formulate their own guidelines rather than going through the county’s historic board, said School Board Chair Emma Violand-Sanchez.
Students said hearing about the experiences from the former students made them appreciate how far the school has come. H-B Woodlawn, which emphasizes student autonomy, is smaller and more intimate than other high schools in the county, and it has a diverse student body, although only about 5 percent of the students are black.
A 15-year-old sophomore who is black said it was difficult to comprehend that there was a time — not so long ago — when she would have been banned from the building where she now spends her school days.
“It’s just like, wow, kind of overwhelming,” she said. “If I were in their position, it would have been really stressful. . . . They have a lot of courage.”
For the trailblazing former students, it also drove home the progress. In the auditorium of the school where they once felt like outsiders, students rose to their feet to applaud them.