Push for School Segregation Rears Its Head Again, in Richmond, Virginia

Classroom scene, Cook Collection, The Valentine. From “Controversy History: Segregation Then and Now.” Used with permission.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Loretta Tillman, 60, remembers her first day of fifth grade in 1970, when she and about 50 other black students arrived at a previously all-white school on the Southside of Richmond, Virginia.

“Oh my goodness,” she remembered thinking, getting out of a city bus — not a school bus, because the system hadn’t procured those yet for newly established busing plans — and walking inside her new school.

Loretta Tillman. (Brian Palmer/brianpalmer.photos)

“These are white people, and what are we doing in a white school?”

While Tillman’s parents worked to keep the public fight against school integration — a fight for which she was involuntarily on the front lines — out of her line of sight, she was familiar with the battle cry used by segregationists to keep white schools white: Save our neighborhood schools.

So when she found out Republican Virginia state Sen. Glen Sturtevant — who is up for reelection this fall — spent the first day of the 2019 school year distributing fliers with “Save our Neighborhood Schools” printed in big letters, she let out a heavy sigh.

“What is old is new again,” she said.

School segregation in Richmond, and more broadly across Virginia, is among the darkest points in the state’s long and tortured history with race. After the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education made school segregation illegal in 1954, it did not take long for Virginia legislators to create new barriers for black children to get an education.

This was best manifested in what became known as “Mass Resistance,” an effort by several counties that closed their public schools entirely rather than allow black students to attend white schools. While the Virginia General Assembly ended the policy, officially in 1959, some counties continued to “resist” until 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in again and forced the last county to reopen.

Richmond, Virginia school debate — then and now.

But even when school systems began to integrate, busing systems that brought black students into white schools were decried as harming white students and burdening white neighborhoods.

Woody Holton, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, also was familiar with the struggle: His father was Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, who spearhead desegregation efforts when he took office in 1970.

To set an example, Gov. Holton sent his children to local, mostly black public schools.

Woody remembered growing up in the governor’s mansion in downtown Richmond, just a stone’s throw from the General Assembly building. He recalled an incident when protesters came to the mansion in a truck with “Impeach Governor Holton” written on the side. They handed Woody, who was playing on the lawn at the time, a box of letters telling his father to abandon his desegregation efforts. A tween-aged Woody asked the protesters what “impeach” meant.

“They said it meant ‘pray for,’” he recalled, in a recent interview.

He dragged the box inside and asked his father the same question. His dad told him it meant to remove him from office. The local paper, which also pushed a desegregation agenda, used a photo of young Woody dragging the box inside on the front page the next day.

Even at such a young age, Woody said, he felt used.

And he too was shocked at Sturtevant’s use of the term “Save our Neighborhood Schools” in 2019.

“That wasn’t a slogan from 1970, that was the slogan,” he said.

Despite the pushback he witnessed from adults, he said his time at a mostly black school was marked with fond memories.

“Kids across time and ethnic lines and time are the same,” he said. “But politicians also seem to be the same.”

Sturtevant, who served on the Richmond School Board before winning his legislative seat in 2015, failed to respond to requests for comment. Nor did he respond to a list of questions asking about the origin of the “Save our Neighborhood Schools” phrase for his campaign.

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said in an email that rezoning efforts today aim to relieve overcrowding at some schools and “increase diversity” at others. Research and local reports show the school system remains “intensely segregated,” with 70% of area schools having fewer than 10% white students.

Kamras said rezoning “can be contentious and emotional,” which has led to dozens of community meetings so far, with more on the way. While more formal plans are expected later this month, he said the district hopes to make the changes in time for the beginning of the 2020 school year.

In a video on his campaign’s Facebook page, Sturtevant said his Save our Neighborhood Schools campaign was inspired by parents who had vocally opposed the proposed rezoning plan at school board meetings. According to the video, he wants to empower parents in the school rezoning process by holding school board elections before rezoning can happen.

According to Facebook posts by parents and school board members, Sturtevant distributed the fliers the first day of school to parents as they were dropping off their kids for class. One flier says the rezoning proposal would undo parents’ efforts to have their children attend schools they explicitly moved to be close to, and would force children to take longer bus rides or burden working families who drop off their kids on the way to work.

“These are some of the best schools in not just Richmond, but in Central Virginia,” Sturtevant said of the majority-white schools in the video. “This rezoning plan would have a major impact on [these schools].”

Tillman, who returned to Richmond public schools as a teacher in the 2000s but has since retired, called the senator’s plan “a bunch of crap.”

And while the senator failed to respond to questions from Courthouse News, Tillman had a few questions of her own in a recent interview.

“Have you read any history? Do (the majority black schools) need saving too? What’s the problem with (black kids) coming? That your kids might end up over a mile from their house? That happens to us all the time. The bus is coming to get your kids. What’s the problem?”

In South Carolina, another state that has its own problems with segregated schools to this day, Woody continues his father’s legacy by sending his children to his local, mixed-race public schools.

“They’re getting to know kids who are different from themselves,” he said.

Both Woody and Tillman participated in an oral history and photo project called “Growing up in Civil rights Richmond: A community remembers.” Organized by University of Richmond Museums and curated by American History Professor Laura Browder and others, the exhibit features photos and short profiles of 30 former and current Richmond residents who shared their experience of living through the city’s painful fight for racial equality.

Many mirrored Tillman’s story, with one subject describing a two-hour bus ride from home to an integrated school.

In a telephone interview, Browder said she was all too familiar with the “Save our Neighborhood Schools” slogan through her research and expressed deep sorrow at the idea of its resurfacing in 2019. She’s long studied racial inequality in the Richmond area and is no stranger to parents’ pushback to rezoning efforts, which she views as a conscious or unconscious form of racism.

“Parents didn’t like to think of themselves as being racist; they thought they were concerned about their kids education,” she said. “Naked racism had been unacceptable in public discourse.”

And while Tillman shared Browder’s disappointment, she said she did see benefits from attending a formerly whites-only school, among them the access to higher level classes like calculus and other AP courses.

“When you went to college it made it harder to be successful, cause you hadn’t had these things other people had,” she said of the segregated school experience.

Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams, another subject of the “Growing up in Civil rights Richmond” project, also used his platform to decry Sturtevant’s plan.

“If he wants to help Richmond Public Schools as a state senator, the best thing he can do is secure more funds for the school district,” Williams wrote in a column published the day students returned to class this month. “Otherwise, if he wants to run RPS (Richmond Public Schools), he should have remained on the school board.”

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