To Clayton Powell and Charles Carpenter, leaving their all-black Arlington high school in 1964 to help integrate a much larger white one was an opportunity to spread their wings.
To Noni Dabney and Peggy Carter Jones, it was like being pushed out of the nest before they could fly.
All were part of the Class of ’65 and had grown up in the narrow spaces allotted to black Arlingtonians: three or four neighborhoods where they could live and one building where they could attend junior high and high school, using tattered books and nubs of chalk discarded from white schools.
On Wednesday, six members of that class, now in their early 70s, returned to Hoffman-Boston, the former “all-Negro” school where the teachers were strict but were also their neighbors and mentors.
“Miss Weaver’s general ed class was right there,” said Carpenter, pointing to the two-story brick building, now an elementary school. Remembering his bus driver, he laughed. “She kept us all in line. We respected her until the day she died. No one played around on Mamie’s bus.”
Brenda Cox, a retired librarian, recalled how the black community, less than 5 percent of the county’s population, was woven tightly together through the church, the civic associations and the schools. “The school was the hub,” she said. The faculty “had seen the struggle. . . . They were preparing us to go into the world and be able to deal with anything we came upon. They knew our parents. I babysat for my teachers.”
The auditorium had hardly changed since they were called in to hear of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “I remember it as clear as day,” Cox said, pointing at the left aisle where one student was walking when the news was announced. “It shocked her so that she screamed and fainted.”
The other shock that year was the news that they wouldn’t graduate in that building.
A decade earlier, the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling had banned school segregation. Bitter struggles ensued, punctuated by Virginia lawmakers’ massive resistance policy, which empowered the commonwealth to close or withhold funding from schools that integrated.
The courts ruled those policies unconstitutional, and in 1959, Arlington became the first district in the commonwealth to integrate, with four students entering Stratford Junior High School (now H-B Woodlawn). After that, there was a trickle, but with the closing of Hoffman-Boston, it became a river.
The high school students dispersed mostly to Wakefield, with a few sent to Washington-Lee High School, recently renamed Washington-Liberty. Hoffman-Boston’s junior high closed the following year. It was a victory for civil rights, but to some of the 60-odd rising seniors, it felt like exile.
“It was a terrible year,” said Carter Jones, the only one of the six to attend Washington-Lee. “I thought I was going to graduate from Hoffman-Boston.”
Dabney shook her head. “I was so looking forward to that. Stop looking forward, girl; it ain’t happening.”
With student bodies of thousands, the white high schools felt vast and impersonal. At Washington-Lee, if a student walked out the back door in the middle of the day, no one noticed. After being allowed to wear only skirts or dresses at Hoffman-Boston, girls at Wakefield could wear pants or even shorts. There was more freedom. But freedom could feel lonely.
“I had had teachers who had loved and cared about me,” Dabney said. “Whereas at Wakefield, they just had a job; they didn’t care if I did well or not.”
After visiting their old school, the group headed to the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield, where one of their last surviving teachers from Hoffman-Boston, Wanda Hill, 91, lives and co-chairs a program, Black and White Shared History, that regularly brings in speakers to discuss the civil rights era.
Standing before about 35 residents, mostly white and some native to Virginia, Cox opened Hoffman-Boston’s final high school yearbook to show the 11th-grade class picture: a few dozen students. On a separate placard, a photo of Wakefield’s Class of 1965 showed an ocean of faces, mostly white with a few black ones.
“You were just thrown into a crowd, and it was sink or swim,” Cox said.
In a county where black kids could not skate at the local roller rink or swim in local pools and where they had to walk to the white neighborhoods to catch a public bus, some recalled racism in their new school. It could be overt — white students throwing chocolate milk at them — or more subtle.
“When you raised your hand to answer a question, they wouldn’t call on you,” Carter Jones recalled. “When you went in the cafeteria, they wouldn’t sit with you. And my parents didn’t know how to talk to the teachers and pupils. Because my father was born in 1900, and he was taught to look down; don’t look them in the eyes.”
Teachers at Hoffman-Boston had helped ease the transition, and a few moved over to Wakefield along with the students. “They prepared us in a way that we were just as good as anybody,” Carpenter said. “That’s how I felt. I didn’t feel like I was being thrown into anything without a life preserver . . . So when I walked in the door, the only thing that intimidated me was the size of the place.”
He chuckled as he recalled his reaction to so many new faces. “The only white kids I knew were the families on TV, like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ ” he said. “They talk about all black people look alike? It took me months to distinguish one white face from another.”
Cultural differences included the music at sock hops. “We were used to black music, and they were used to the Beatles,” Powell said. “We had Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations . . . and we had problems trying to dance to [their music] because it was a totally different beat.”
But the change also brought opportunities, to profit from a better-funded school and to show what they could do.
“I had the impression that the school was preparing for this large influx of black kids that they were expecting to excel in industrial arts and wood shop,” Carpenter recalled. Instead, “a lot of us went for the college preparatory courses.”
As intimate and beloved as Hoffman-Boston had been, Wakefield offered a greater variety of academic classes as well as sports such as gymnastics, Carpenter said. “In order to get the best possible education, integration was the way to go.”
Powell, who played football and basketball, agreed, adding that it gave black athletes a wider field on which to prove themselves and to bond across the color line.
He flipped through a scrapbook showing teams of black and white students, the best from each school. (Cheerleaders from Hoffman-Boston, however, were not accepted onto the Wakefield squad for the first couple of years.)
“I’ve got an article here saying that they didn’t think that they would gel, especially in football,” Powell said. “And we ended up winning the championship in football, and we won the championship in basketball.
“. . . I left there with a positive attitude, basically because of sports.”
After the presentation, residents shared their own memories.
“That whole period was appalling,” said Evelyn Hernandez Hewitt, who graduated from Wakefield in 1960, adding that because her father was Puerto Rican, “people were frequently checking me out to see if I was really white.”
As the students spoke, Hill listened. A few times, her eyes misted over. Afterward, she addressed them directly.
“We, as teachers, I can’t say we loved everybody in the school, but we certainly knew you, and we knew your parents.”
“I feel humbled by what you’ve said, and I feel gratified by it,” she said. “You wonder: In your life, have you done anything? Have you made a contribution? And you just overwhelmed me because . . . I can die knowing that I did something positive.”