Past Is Prologue Statue


Roanoke’s School Desegregation

The history of the Civil Rights Movement is often about resistance (both non- violent and violent) to racist environments. In Roanoke, Virginia, it took nearly twenty years to integrate city schools, yet opposition by the African American community has been nearly forgotten. School closings in Prince Edward County became the enduring image of civil rights in Virginia, while historians have generally ignored the patterns of desegregation in Roanoke and other areas in western Virginia because they assumed integration there to be a smooth transition.

Cecilia endured the abuse while thinking “gosh, we’re just coming to school...”[1]

The case study of Roanoke provides a very different response to civil rights in Virginia that was directed by the city’s white and black elites. While change elsewhere was volatile, change in Roanoke occurred at a much slower pace, a pace comfortable for these leaders. Roanoke’s history does not mirror the traditional model of civil rights action spearheaded by youth and challenges traditional views of Virginia’s postwar twentieth century political history. At the same time, Roanoke’s integration shows that even where whites and African Americans generally frowned upon racial violence, children could still receive psychological scars.

On September 6th, 1960, the first black school children desegregated several elementary schools without incident. [2] On September 7th, however, Cecilia Long and Eula Poindexter confronted a white crowd in front of Monroe Junior High. Roanoke’s leadership knew that national media coverage would focus on the first day of desegregated school. Yet threats of violence towards African American students on the second day did not cause concern for city leaders, as long as it stayed out of local and national medi a outlets.

Other African American students from the first “pioneering” or desegregating generation had similar problems with desegregating the previously all-white schools. With the prevalence of scattered integration, particularly in the first years, white teachers and students often marginalized or treated African Americans poorly. To be one of a few African American students moved to a strange, white world proved very difficult.

The teaching systems were different. The 7 of us that went into Monroe, we were all gifted kids. Very good in grades... However, the teachers did not acknowledge us. We were just like we weren’t there as far as being taught. The teachers were afraid of us. They didn’t know how to handle us. The older teachers were mean and hateful and rude. Teachers were bad. They didn’t want to teach us. It was just like we weren’t wanted anyway and the students were the same way.[3]

The image of Prince Edward County’s Massive Resistance will always remain the symbol for Virginia’s Civil Rights Movement. A female black high school student, leading her classmates in a strike against oppressive authorities made a great story. Political pressures from the high school students pushed NAACP lawyers farther than they wanted to go in the name of freedom. These ideals are enumerated in America’s founding documents. When Prince Edward County closed its schools America did not live up to these ideals. A generation of African Americans never graduated from high school in Prince Edward County as the schools were closed from 1959 to 1964.[4] The era of Massive Resistance was a powerful time, but scholars need to remember that another type of resistance occurred.

Booker T. Washington
The former Booker T. Washington Junior High School in Roanoke
is now the school system's administrative building.

The stories of those who lived through events in Roanoke challenged the Prince Edward County model of desegregation in Virginia. In Roanoke, massive resistance never became an official policy. Yet “smooth” relations did not bring meaningful integration with any speed. Leaders of the African American middle class agreed to minimize open conflict in return for a voice in some city decisions. African Americans consistently held appointed positions on the Roanoke School Board and Noel C. Taylor was even elected mayor from 1975 to 1992. Despite African American representation on the school board, Roanoke City did not move towards desegregation unless forced to do so by judicial mandate.

For historians of the Civil Rights Movement, it can be tempting to focus only on the most scandalous or well-known events. But it can be dangerous to make a symbol stand for an entire state. Roanoke shows that discrimination in the context of school desegregation cannot be calculated by the number of 60 schools closed. Likewise, the 1960s did not inspire popular resistance movements in every urban area. Yet even without shuttered schools or a forceful protest movement, Roanoke changed dramatically. Policies like the Great Society and urban renewal interacted with desegregation in complex ways; bulldozing made desegregation somewhat simpler. Finally, we must remember that passive resistance kept schools largely segregated much longer than massive resistance. Though Roanoke City leaders would prefer to hide this fact, scholars must not.