The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They were 12 when they made Virginia history. On the day that should have been celebrated, the focus turned to blackface.

Four 12-year-olds became the first to integrate Virginia’s public schools on Feb. 2, 1959. They are, from left, Gloria Thompson, Ronald Deskins, Lance Newman and Michael Jones.
Four 12-year-olds became the first to integrate Virginia’s public schools on Feb. 2, 1959. They are, from left, Gloria Thompson, Ronald Deskins, Lance Newman and Michael Jones. (N/A/AP)

Michael Jones doesn’t remember where he got the coat, or even whether he was nervous the day he slipped it on and made history.

In a photo taken 60 years ago, Jones is 12 years old and one side of the coat is slung behind him as his hand rests in his pocket. He looks cool. He looks calm. If you saw the photo out of context, you would have no idea that racism was raging around him.

The photo was taken on Feb. 2, 1959, moments before Jones and three other children stepped into an Arlington middle school and became the first black students to integrate Virginia’s public schools.

It was a pivotal milestone in the state’s history, and on Monday night, Jones stood before a crowd in that same building to speak about that moment.

The event was supposed to focus on the past, on where we had been and how far we had come as a state and as a nation. That’s what Black History Month events generally do. They commemorate. They celebrate.

But two days earlier — on the anniversary of that historic walk — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) stood before reporters and admitted to rubbing shoe polish on his face in 1984 to resemble Michael Jackson. He denied at that same news conference appearing in a racist yearbook photo that showed a person in a KKK robe next to a person in blackface.

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Suddenly the past and the present felt not distant enough from each other.

“It may be a little different, but it’s still there,” Jones said of racism when I spoke to him. “Things have changed a lot since 1959, but as you can see, a lot of things still need to be worked on.”

Black History Month, by the nature of its name, calls for us to look back — and we should. But what has happened in Virginia in recent days, with two top lawmakers admitting to using blackface, also speaks to the need to look around us now and acknowledge that it’s not just the past that is painful. We can’t talk about “what was” without acknowledging “what is.”

After I heard Northam’s admission followed by Attorney General Mark Herring’s confession on Wednesday that he also painted his face, in an attempt to look like Kurtis Blow at a college party, I had plenty of thoughts. One of them was simply: I wonder how that 12-year-old boy in that historic photo is feeling?

Jones, who is 72 and retired from the CIA, still lives in Northern Virginia. These are his political leaders, too.

Jones said he wasn’t surprised about the blackface and pointed to other examples of modern racism. He spoke about the videos that have come out in recent years that show black people harassed and having the police called on them for doing nothing other than living their lives. The videos have led to hashtags such as #drivingwhileblack, #travelingwhileblack and #shoppingwhileblack.

He also pointed to Charlottesville. White supremacists and white nationalists rallied in that Virginia city in 2017, chanting “White lives matter!” and “You will not replace us!” before an avowed neo-Nazi rammed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

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“Some people thought after Barack Obama got elected, it was going to be better,” Jones said. In the current atmosphere, he said, “people are more apt to show you who they are. People who are racists come out and show you.”

As for Northam and Herring — and any other politician whose past racist behaviors comes out — he said he believes each should be viewed on a “case by case” basis. A lot comes down to the context of their actions and the sincerity of their confessions.

“I think people appreciate when you make a concrete change,” he said. “Nobody has to make a mistake forever.”

Jones said people ask him maybe once a year about the walk that he and those three other students — Ronald Deskins, Lance Newman and Gloria Thompson — made that day in 1959, and each time, he tries to share what he can remember. He remembers going to Deskins’s house that morning. He remembers the children being driven to the school, where police were waiting to escort them. He remembers walking through the door and speaking to the principal before having a relatively calm day.

“Being so young, we didn’t realize the gravity of the situation,” he said. “It was a scary time, but I think everyone in this area, white and black, wanted it not to be something negative that showed up in the paper.”

Instead, what appeared in the newspaper the next day was that photo of Jones in his swung-aside coat, slightly smiling.

Jones’s sister Wilma Jones writes about it in a book she published late last year, “My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood.”

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“Dad was not at all happy about the hand in the pocket,” she wrote. “I wasn’t even born when the incident occurred, but I heard my dad express his displeasure with that picture quite a bit during my life.”

Jones said her father saw in it what others didn’t: her brother’s smirk and too-cool demeanor. When she later interviewed her mother and father for the book, she found out that her mother had spent hours that morning praying and her father had taken a rare day off work to make sure the children got to Stratford Junior High safely.

Jones said she started writing the book — which details the lives of those who lived in Halls Hill, a black neighborhood that was separated by a wall from a white neighborhood that those residents erected — because she was afraid that history would soon be lost.

The recent revelations in Virginia, she said, only make her feel more strongly that these conversations need to be happening now. It’s time, she said, for people to look at their own behavior and “own it.”

“This is a moment in time for us to reset and learn how to talk to one another and learn how to listen to each other’s stories,” she said. “It’s hard to hate somebody once you know their story.”

On Friday, it was her turn to stand before a group. This time, it was a class of children in Arlington, just slightly older than her brother was when he made that walk.

She talked to them about the past and the present, hoping it might change the future.

Read more:

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