Martha Ann Miller, a former Arlington Public Schools educator who helped fight for the county’s first elected school board and taught at one of Virginia’s first desegregated public schools, died Aug. 16 at a senior living center in Arlington. She was 106.
Her daughter, Margaret Filiatrault, said the cause of death had not yet been determined.
At 101, Mrs. Miller independently published an autobiography, “The First Century: And Not Ready for the Rocking Chair Yet.” She chronicled her life from her girlhood on an Indiana farm during the Great Depression to her efforts on behalf of Arlington students at a pivotal moment in history.
Mrs. Miller was credited with playing a key role in changing the administration of Virginia schools. In Arlington, where she settled in 1937, she viewed the public school system as inadequate and slow to change. In the 1940s, she circulated a petition demanding that the Arlington School Board issue bonds for new schools, but the request was denied.
“There was a real fight that went on,” Mrs. Miller said at an event for her book in 2013. “We were listed as communists, as people who would leave the county with a big debt and leave in a year or so.”
She and her husband, Malcolm D. Miller, who was a lawyer, joined the Citizens Committee for School Improvement and mounted a campaign to give Arlington an elected school board. The committee helped obtain General Assembly approval for a vote in 1947, and Arlington soon succeeded as the first and only county to vote for an elected school board.
After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional, the Arlington school board moved to begin desegregating its schools. In response, Sen. Harry F. Byrd (D-Va.), who operated a statewide political machine, called for “massive resistance” to racial integration, and the General Assembly replaced the elected board with a state-appointed one in 1956. Virginia did not allow the local election of school boards again until 1992.
Mrs. Miller taught math at Stratford Junior High School in Arlington for 21 years. In 1959, Stratford admitted four black students, becoming the first public school to desegregate under court order in Virginia.
“The principals asked the teachers if we would be willing to teach black students,” she wrote in her book. “Some teachers refused. I personally felt it was an insult to be asked this kind of question, and I, of course, volunteered, considering it an honor to have these students in my classroom.”
Two of the four students joined Mrs. Miller’s seventh grade class. In her memoir, she described it as a “regular day.”
“They’re human beings like the rest of us, and they should be treated that way,” she told The Washington Post in 2011.
Martha Ann Riggs was born in Evansville, Ind., on Aug. 6, 1911, and raised on a nearby family farm. At 13, as a member of the 4-H youth club, she won a statewide baking contest. Her loaf of bread won her a trip to Washington and a full scholarship to Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Ind., which they held for her until she finished high school. In 1934, she graduated with a degree in economics and a minor in math.
Her husband died in 1989 after 42 years of marriage. A son, William Miller, died in 1945, and a daughter, Winifred E. Kriebel, died in 1994.
Survivors include two children, Margaret Filiatrault of Georgetown, S.C., and Malcolm R. Miller of Santa Rosa, Calif.; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Miller had been a member of the American Association of University Women since 1944. In 1997, she was honored by Arlington County’s Commission on the Status of Women for her service in the community and commitment to education. She belonged to Clarendon United Methodist Church for 73 years.
“Having lived most of my life in the 20th century, it is worth noting what a wonderful century it was,” she wrote in her book. “I’ve lived through the days of horses and buggies, trolley cars, Model-T Fords, and early planes. . . . I fully believe there will never be another century as full of change and inventions as that one.”