Two weeks ago, Charlottesville City Schools were closed because of a racist threat made by a white student against black and Latino students attending Charlottesville High School. In response, the school’s Black Student Union last week circulated a list of demands and organized a walkout.
This walkout is part of the long history of Charlottesville’s black students in high school fighting educational inequities and oppression. School administrators have never adequately listened to these students, resulting in a situation that, over the past half-century, has grown worse, not better.
In 1959, French Jackson, Donald Martin and John Martin desegregated Lane High School. Although they did not face the same harassment endured by black students desegregating such places as Central High School in Little Rock, the three teenagers were not welcomed by the majority of their white peers. Other black students followed in their footsteps. By fall 1967, many of the city’s black students attended Lane. The city’s black segregated high school, Jackson P. Burley, closed. Unlike their students, most of the black teachers and counselors at Burley were not transferred to Lane or another school in the district and instead lost their jobs.
But even full desegregation did not equal a welcoming environment. Black students at Lane faced verbal and physical harassment from their white peers and predominantly white teachers throughout the 1960s and 1970s. For example, in May 1968, six white students driving around in a car threw a bottle at a black student walking home from the school’s senior class carnival. The black student was taken to the University of Virginia hospital to be treated for cuts and bruises.
In response to the attack and chronic abuse at Lane, black students organized a walkout. After leaving the school, about 200 students gathered at Trinity Episcopal Church. They met with the Rev. Henry B. Mitchell and crafted a list of demands. Their demands included creating a black history course, hiring a black counselor and more black teachers, improving relationships between teachers and students, and hiring “qualified personnel on staff to deal with racial situations.”
The superintendent acceded to some of the students’ demands. For example, Lane purchased a televised black history curriculum and added it to the junior U.S. history course. But this action fell far short of embracing black students and their needs. The course was not well-received by students because of the impersonal pedagogy and the lack of support from U.S. history teachers. This halfhearted effort resulted in additional organizing and protests, until Lane instituted an elective black history course in fall 1971.
But even as it was adjusting the curriculum, Lane High School also increased the level of surveillance of black students. The superintendent placed a plainclothes officer in the school and also required teachers to monitor the halls between classes.
Charlottesville High School replaced Lane in fall 1974. But a new school and the passage of time solved nothing. A decade later, in March 1984, a white student published an article in the school newspaper about the legacy of school desegregation in Charlottesville. The article included anonymous statements from a white sophomore who said that black students “hang around the hall. They just come to get heat. They just mess around ... [and] come to school ‘cause they have nothing else to do. … They just come to smoke herb and all that stuff.”
After the article was published, students arrived at school the following week and found anti-black epithets spray-painted on the parking lot. Fights broke out between students, which forced the school’s principal, David Garrett, to close Charlottesville High School for the day. In response, according to Vice Principal Florence Coleman Bryant, the school board held public hearings to “receive input into a plan for attacking the racial problems exposed by the students.” Based on the hearings and additional research, a report titled “Race Relations and Education in Charlottesville” was issued in 1985.
The report included recommendations for improving race relations in the city’s schools. The recommendations included developing “a systemwide relations curriculum,” evaluating “professional staff on human relations skills” and making “support for minority academic achievement a major priority.”
Two main factors undermined the implementation efforts. First, there was continual turnover in leadership, on the school board and in the superintendent’s office. As educational researcher Michael Salmonowicz observed, the “frequent changes meant that opinions and ideas were fluid” among leaders within the school division. Second, the national conversation around school reform shifted from a focus on equity to “excellence for all.” This ideology trickled down into local reform efforts as Charlottesville City Schools attempted to stanch white flight to private schools and the public schools in surrounding Albemarle County. In other words, the school division focused on high-achieving and, often, white students at the expense of students of color.
The failed effort in 1980s left a stagnant situation that has festered to the present. While Charlottesville’s schools are desegregated, 60 years after this process began, they still don’t offer black students the same education and opportunities as their white peers.
In many ways, in fact, the Black Student Union’s demands are an indictment of how, after these previous episodes, the school division failed to undertake the sort of durable, systematic change necessary to make students feel welcomed and included in the community, regardless of race. Indeed, these demands mirror those made by students at various points during the past 50 years. Students are still calling for black history to be integrated into the school’s curriculum and for the school division to hire more teachers of color. They are also still insisting that the school focus on the academic achievement of students of color.
If anything, the demands reveal that the situation has gotten worse, not better. Due to the presence of a “resource” officer in the school, students of color are now dealing with yet another obstacle to receiving an equitable education. The Black Student Union’s current demands include “discipline reform” and “racial bias and cultural sensitivity training for all resource officers,” a sign that they feel targeted by the police who reside in their schools.
Despite the previous protest movements by black high school students, Charlottesville City Schools have yet to provide an equitable education for students of color. The latest walkout provides yet another opportunity for the leadership of Charlottesville City Schools to enact structural changes that will benefit students of color. That will require not only hearing and implementing the demands of the students, but also looking within and beyond the school for the root causes of the fundamental inequality plaguing them.
For example, why hasn’t the high school hired teachers of color to teach honors and Advanced Placement courses? How does the lack of affordable housing in the city influence students and their families? These are just a few issues among many that Charlottesville City Schools need to grapple with and find solutions for. If they can, they might offer a template for schools across the nation. But if they fail, students will probably be forced to exit class in protest again in the decades to come.