Looking back at integration in Waynesboro (Sunday, September 12, 2010)

Rebecca Martinez/staff

WAYNESBORO — Janitha “Nita” Bellamy fondly remembers being a student at Rosenwald School, which served black elementary and high school students in Waynesboro.

She worked hard in class, respected her teachers and played with her friends. She had no idea about the changes her mother, historian Augustine Bellamy, or school leaders braced for when city schools began to integrate in the fall of 1965.

“I don’t remember us discussing having to go to Waynesboro High School until they made the announcement that we were. I guess I was just busy being a kid,” she said.

“Come September, we had to go to school. Then the bells went off. ‘I have to go to this white school. The white school with the white kids.'”

While she was thinking about clothes, hairstyles and listening to music, a very quiet group of eight black and white men, the Bi-Racial Commission the city council had appointed in 1960, was gradually changing the small Virginia city in ways unlike any other.

A quiet word with restaurant owners, followed by black and white commission members joining for a meal at a lunch counter, and one barrier fell.

A letter to the bus company and “Whites Only” signs disappeared. More quiet words, and Waynesboro movie theaters stopped making blacks sit in their balconies and enter through the back door.

“We sat in the balcony, but it was fun,” Bellamy remembers now. “Really, truly, we had the best seats in the house.”

The way she — and many others — remember, the end of segregation came easily to Waynesboro.

“I’m glad I went into it in Waynesboro rather than Los Angeles and New York and Atlanta and the deep South, where they killed you. The fear thing wasn’t there for us,” Bellamy said. “It just never turned out to be as frightening as things you heard about or seen on TV or read about in the news. It didn’t happen here. It really didn’t happen here, and I’m thankful for that.”

Massive resistance

After the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that separate schools were not equal, Virginia legislators dug in their heels, with 23 bills to block integration — even dropping compulsory school attendance.

When 22 blacks entered Warren County High School in Front Royal under a federal court order in 1958, Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closed it, along with two schools in Charlottesville and six in Norfolk. Prince Edward County closed schools between 1959 and 1964.

In 1965, a year after the Prince Edward County schools reopened, Waynesboro schools desegregated.

“Waynesboro never seemed to be comfortable with massive resistance,” said Theodore DeLaney, a history professor at Washington and Lee University.

The city voted no in a 1957 referendum on whether to give financial help to families who didn’t want to send their children to integrated schools.

“We got no leadership and no guidance from anybody anyplace. We did not follow anybody else’s lead,” said Jean Nichols, who served on Waynesboro’s School Board at the time.

“Waynesboro was very fortunate in having some far-sighted citizens who were asked to be on a biracial commission, and this was not something that was well known.”

Rosenwald School Principal William Perry was a member of the city council’s biracial commission and later met in private with the schools superintendent and principals of Waynesboro High and Kate Collins to plan the integration process before proposing it to the school board in the spring of 1965.

“I think the main purpose was to bring about desegregation in the city of Waynesboro doing such whereby there wouldn’t be a lot of disturbance made,” he said. “We spent a little time figuring out how we should go about this.”

Students from Rosenwald’s middle and high schools moved to Kate Collins Middle School and Waynesboro High School. The following year, elementary schools integrated.

“They were just divided out among the classes. You’d have two or three,” said Janet Lunger, who taught math at Waynesboro High School from 1953 to 1966.

“I think basically the blacks were scared to death. They made no waves. They were very quiet and did OK. They just … they fit in.”

She remembers a bigger change in the 1950s, when General Electric had set up a plant in town, drawing many white northern families to the area.

“That was a bigger cultural shock when GE came in because they talked so fast I couldn’t understand them,” she said.

Making the move

Vermell Grant remembers two things about going to a black school: the old editions of textbooks and the way her teachers spent extra time with students.

“Now being on the other side and kind of looking back, I’m pretty amazed as to how much was being accomplished even when the resources were so limited,” said Grant, now assistant superintendent of Waynesboro schools.

Ron Lassiter, a probation officer in Staunton, also remembers the constant communication between teachers and parents of the 200 students — first-grade children to high school seniors — who attended Rosenwald.

“We were basically raised in an environment that said you don’t question authority,” Lassiter said.

At Waynesboro High School, Lassiter said he wasn’t distracted by the changes integration brought because he had been trained to listen only to his teachers.

“You went to school to learn. You did not go to school to play. You did not go to school to socialize. A lot of our parents were not educated. You get an education. You get a high school diploma.”

Black students were aware that they were integrating into a white population and not the other way around — and that they still faced challenges.

“If I integrated into (his) place, I had to be twice as talented to get the same opportunity,” said Lassiter, who played junior varsity football at Waynesboro.

“Because he was already there.”

Behind the Scenes: Waynesboro’s Bi-Racial Commission

On Aug. 28, 1960, Mayor H.F. Black and the Waynesboro City Council appointed the following men, some black, some white, to form a Bi-Racial Commission.

  • George D. Brown
  • J. Berry Harris
  • Warren M. Johnson
  • O. C. Muse
  • William W. Perry
  • A. C. Schmick
  • C. R. Sherman
  • W. L. Somers

(Waynesboro City Council meeting minutes)

The group included business owners an managers, an educator and DuPont employees.

Perry, the former principal of the black Rosenwald School and later Kate Collins Middle School, kept notes about the transitions and has spoken about it publicly.

He said the two objectives of the commission were to integrate facilities that served the public, including restaurants and bus stations, and to encourage all local industries, including the DuPont and General Electric plants, to desegregate their operations.

“The philosophy of this commission was to bring about a solution to these problems, creating the least amount of publicity,” Perry wrote. “A lot of publicity about anything seems to stir one’s curiosity, which brings a crowd, and, as usual, a crowd brings trouble.”

He said the business owners “saw the handwriting on the wall,” and, anticipating mass integration, welcomed the biracial committees suggestion to desegregate quietly.

It focused on the following sectors:

  • Industrial plants: Then-Mayor G.K. Crutchfield visited with DuPont plant manager Al Simmons, who agreed to desegregate cafeterias and lavatories within six months. More opportunities opened up to black employees.
  • Lunch counters and restaurants: Black and white pairs of commission members talked privately with the owners of Southern Restaurant, Newberry’s and other popular eateries about quietly desegregating. They then sat at the lunch counters publicly and were served without incident.
  • City government: The city agreed to employ more black workers. Eugene Perry became Waynesboro’s first black police officer in 1963.
  • City pools: The pools in both white Ridgeview and black North Park began admitting all patrons who paid the entrance fee, regardless of color.
  • Bus and train station accommodations: The commission wrote letters to the C&O Railroad Company and Virginia Trailways asking them to desegregate their facilities and did not receive opposition. Later, both companies closed their black waiting rooms and removed signs that designated lavatories by race.
  • Theaters: After the commission approached the owners of the Wayne and Cavalier Theaters, they allowed all patrons to buy tickets at the front entrance and sit in general seating instead of requiring blacks to go around the side and sit in the balcony. Commission members did so publicly.
  • The Hotel: The General Wayne Hotel opposed the commission’s request to serve black patrons, but reconsidered when it began to lose business from DuPont, who contracted black workers from out of the area.
  • Recreation: Directors of Waynesboro Midget Football integrated the league in 1963, permitting all players of the proper age limit, regardless of race and color, to play. Perry said this brought together black and white parents and aided in school integration.
  • Schools: Superintendent F. B. Glenn met with Perry, Waynesboro High School Principal S. B. Kiger and Kate Collins Junior High School Principal S.C. Callison monthly in private to plan school integration. In spring of 1965, Perry proposed to the school board that Rosenwald’s middle and high schools integrate with Kate Collins and WHS that fall. They integrated that fall. The next year, elementary schools integrated.
  • Cemeteries: The city council accepted the commission’s recommendation to drop racial barriers at the previously white Riverview Cemetery and take over operations of the black Fairview Cemetery. They left it to the churches and morticians to inform the public.

Perry said most all of these transitions happened “smoothly.” He said business owners and city administrators figured integration was inevitable, but the biracial commission allowed them to make these changes in a low-key way to avoid negative attention.

“If not, these places would have maintained the same policies,” he said. “Nobody wanted to upset the apple cart.”

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About gumshuz

I'm a writer and journalist living in Wyoming. Audio is my passion. My reporting has aired on Naitonal Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, BBC/PRI, APM and WAMU. My writing has been published in The News Leader, the Daily News-Record and The Star-Ledger. I deal in Americana and the human condition.
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