The Washington Post

Obama thanks Olivia Ferguson McQueen for her help desegregating Virginia schools

President Barack Obama visits with Olivia McQueen in the Oval Office, June 10, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by the Washington Post and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House. (Pete Souza/THE WHITE HOUSE)

On election night in 2008, Olivia Ferguson McQueen held her breath. It wasn’t about politics. She watched the numbers anxiously all night, then gasped, shocked and elated to see an African-American elected president of the United States.

It felt personal, and communal, for her, an all-but-unknown civil rights pioneer. As a young girl in Virginia in the 1950s, she was a reluctant but resolute plaintiff in a lawsuit her parents helped bring challenging the segregated schools in Charlottesville. When a court ordered then-all-white schools to admit the black plaintiffs, the governor shut down the schools rather than comply. So Olivia Ferguson, 16 at the time, spent her senior year in the school board office with one other student and an occasional tutor. In the end, she was given just a makeshift certificate listing courses she had completed.

Last month, more than 50 years later, she was honored in Charlottesville and finally given a high-school diploma.

An acquaintance was astonished to read the story, something McQueen had almost never talked about. Cecilia Munoz, now director of the domestic policy council at the White House and someone McQueen had known as a mother during her long career in early childhood education in Washington, invited McQueen to have lunch. Munoz wanted to talk about children, grandchildren. And she asked McQueen if she could stay afterward to meet the president.

McQueen says she was stunned, and ecstatic. She remembered her father writing her a letter after the first black lieutenant governor was elected in Virginia. She remembered the big party she and her husband hosted for the presidential inauguration in 2009, with people talking about what their parents would say, what their grandparents would say, and her granddaughter carefully recording people’s reflections in a keepsake book.

McQueen’s daughter cried when she told her about the White House invitation. Her grandson told her he was proud of her and that all his friends wished she was their grandmother.

After lunch with Munoz, they went to the Oval Office, someone told her to stand by the door and — before she had time to prepare herself, there was President Obama smiling at her. “He just opened the door and said, ‘Mrs. McQueen, come in! ... Come on in and give me a hug.’”

He thanked her for what she had done in Charlottesville. She was overwhelmed, trying not to cry, trying to tell him how pleased her parents would be to know she was there with him. “I was just trying to catch my breath,” she said.

Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.

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