History, History Column

The Sounds of Silence

©2017 Sarah Becker


The Sounds of Silence


In 1966 Simon & Garfunkel had a number one song, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the U.S. Department of Transportation, and U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. (D-VA) died at his Berryville home. The Byrd machine passed politically from father to son, Johnson appointed the first black U.S. Cabinet member, and U.S. Senator Willis Robertson (D-VA) lost Presidential favor. Virginia’s failure to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, Byrd Sr.’s co-authorship of the Southern Manifesto left many Civil Rights issues unresolved.

“We regard the decision of the Supreme Court in the [bundled] school cases as a clear abuse of judicial power,” the Manifesto said. “It climaxes a trend in the Federal Judiciary undertaking to legislate…to encroach upon the reserved rights of the States and the people.” Virginia massively resisted Brown.

In Alexandria, in 1966, the subject was integration of the all-white Thomas Jefferson Middle School. If integrated, the re-fashioned school, located at Cameron and N. West Streets, “would draw from nearby census tracts designated as ‘poverty stricken.’” The Rosemont neighborhood protested and the building was torn down.

“Alexandria quietly is making plans for a model community-centered facility to replace its least integrated elementary school, Charles Houston,” The Washington Post reported in January 1968. “But present indications are that the new Jefferson-Houston Elementary School [K-5] will be as segregated as the old one.”

“The new building is now on the drawing boards and expected to open in 1969,” The Post continued. It could provide an opportunity for the city to redraw attendance boundaries and promote integration, if it chooses…[but]…Alexandria school authorities have no plans to cross the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad tracts that have been the traditional boundary between the city’s Negro district and white, middle-class neighborhoods [like Rosemont] to the west.”

At its opening, Jefferson-Houston Elementary School was 94.6% black, 96% black in 1979. It is 79.5% of color today. Economically disadvantaged, 73% of today’s Jefferson Houston School students receive free and reduced lunches. To what extent is Jefferson Houston School’s $45 million, modified, 2014 pre-K-8 facility a continuation of yesterday?

In 1870 Virginia segregated its schools. It was able to do so for two reasons. First, Reconstruction left public education firmly in the hands of state governments. Second, Virginia was merely following a pattern of school segregation pioneered in the North. Abolitionist and attorney; U.S. Senator Charles Sumner [RR-MA] wrote Equality before the Law: Unconstitutionality of separate Colored Schools in Massachusetts in 1870. The racially divisive phrase separate but equal originated in 1849 with Roberts v. City of Boston (5 Cushing R. 198).

“The prospect of integration sparked three highly divergent reactions among 1950s Virginians,” biographer Bruce J. Dierenfield wrote. “Two of these groups occupied the political backstage…The momentum and popular opinion belonged to the diehard segregationists. Dominated by the Byrd politicians, this group demanded complete disobedience of Brown. Its chief exponent in the media, James J. Kilpatrick, drew upon the antebellum doctrines of states’ rights and interposition….”

Not until black attorney Samuel W. Tucker’s 1968 Green v. School Board of New Kent County, Va.—the U.S. Supreme Court’s “extension of the Brown decision”—did Virginia School Districts implement full desegregation. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Va. the U.S. Supreme Court decided “the Court had not merely the power, but the duty, to render a decree which will so far as possible eliminate the discriminatory effects of the past, as well as bar like discrimination in the future.”

“School boards,” the Justices wrote, “were clearly charged with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch. [Furthermore] school officials have the continuing duty to take whatever action may be necessary to create a ‘unitary, nonracial system.’”

There is, for federal purposes, “a difference between ending segregation and achieving integration.” In 1968 Jefferson-Houston Elementary School was built as a “replacement of the ‘racially identifiable’ Charles Houston Elementary school.” Soon after the feds decided Jefferson-Houston was a “de jure segregated school” whose elementary purpose was “tailored to a black neighborhood.”

“Improvements in facilities and equipment,” the Green decision concluded, “have been instituted in all-Negro schools…in a manner that tends to discourage Negroes from selecting all-white schools.” Typically, the 2014 replacement Jefferson-Houston School includes an observatory and rooftop classrooms.

In 1972 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare asked Alexandria school officials to notify it “promptly” of their plans to “eliminate the last vestiges of the dual school system” at the elementary level. Samuel W. Tucker’s law partner, Richmond’s Vice Mayor Henry L. Marsh III told The Washington Post “Alexandria’s problem was the failure to deal with predominantly black elementary schools and what he said was a silence on program quality.”

“In Arlington, where blacks generally scored 10 to 15 points lower than white students, school officials kicked off a home skills program designed to promote parent involvement,” The Washington Post continued. “In Alexandria, school administrators say the problem is not one of black and white, but rich and poor.”

Alexandria remains a southern city and, sadly, ACPS School Boards like segregated drama. Jim Crow lives a de facto life, Alexandria’s public housing remains 91.2% black, and “the gifted gap” is fact. School policy, to borrow Daniel Moynihan’s 1965 phrase, is a “tangle of pathologies.”

Once integrated, now re-segregated; accredited in 2008, now a Priority School Partnership School Jefferson Houston has again fallen short. School administrators describe the reconfigured, renamed Jefferson-Houston School as built anew. Still the School, Alexandria’s first pre-K-8 school as of 2009-2010, is the system’s stepchild.

“Southern schools are quietly re-segregating, particularly by sequestering poor black students in schools of their own,” The Atlantic’s Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in May 2014.   “[The] story now is of backroom deals, difficult compromises and devastating consequences….” Like ACPS’ 2017, 1999 redistricting schemes.

Today—nationwide—“the typical black student is in a school where almost two out of every three classmates (64%) are low-income, nearly double the level in schools of the typical white or Asian student (37% and 39% respectively),” UCLA’s Civil Rights Project Brown at 60 concluded. The UCLA study also showed how “double segregation,” a term used to describe schools that are segregated by race and economic status, “is becoming more prevalent.”

In 1966 Virginia Gov. Mills Godwin convened a statewide education conference. “Our education trails the nation—38th place among the 50 states in almost every aspect,” Godwin said. “This must seem incomprehensible to the outsider since we are near the top of the heap in the matter of per capita income.”

“We have nowhere to go but up,” an Alexandria Gazette editorial then concluded. The University of Virginia, Curry School of Education delivered its updated audit report on February 27, 2017. The interim Superintendent has arrived and together we wait for the September publication of Jefferson-Houston’s 2016-2017 Standards of Learning scores.

“There is an evident purpose on the part of all…to avoid an opening on the discussion of the South’s race problem, its progress on educational lines,” The Washington Post reported in 1903. In 1984 The Post addressed Alexandria’s “trend toward resegregation in some schools.”

“Separate schooling for rich and poor, and for students of different races, is fundamentally at odds with the American Dream,” The Century Foundation’s School Integration in Practice Report concluded.


Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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