DOVE meets in Lunenburg

Published 12:52 pm Wednesday, December 18, 2019

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Today’s students may take it for granted that they share a classroom with friends of different races. But, as in many other Virginia communities, school desegregation came late to Lunenburg County — more than a decade after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed separate schools.

On Monday, Nov. 18, some of the individuals who ushered in that change in the 1960s gathered for a meeting of DOVE, or Desegregation of Virginia Education, held at the Victoria Public Library. Local native and historian Shirley Robertson Lee invited DOVE to town.

Lee has written a tremendous book on the integration process in the county, “Trails and Trailblazers: Public Education and School Desegregation in Lunenburg County, Virginia 1870-1970.” As she meticulously researched the history, Lee interviewed dozens of individuals who pioneered school desegregation in the county. She invited them to Monday’s meeting.

The meeting in Lunenburg got off to a terrific start thanks to a gracious welcome from Anne C. Hamlet, the vice president of the Lunenburg County Historical Society. Lee gave an overview of how school desegregation in Lunenburg County transpired. She discussed many actors in the movement that helped push school integration, and civil rights generally, the most influential of them being Nathaniel Lee Hawthorne. Hawthorne was a military veteran from Kenbridge and president of the Lunenburg County branch of the NAACP. But school integration was not pushed along by one man solely. In fact, there were many people in the movement that helped change the educational inequalities in Lunenburg; some of them joined Monday’s meeting, including one former student who was among the first 16 to integrate into Lunenburg County’s white schools in 1965.

Violet Johnson Harris was the first African American female student to graduate from Central High School in 1967. Harris had a rough senior year as she entered the school that had been formed to merge African American and white students under the county’s freedom of choice plan. She experienced intense “verbal harassment” by her white classmates; many times she would begin to walk into a classroom when all of a sudden the door would be slammed in her face. Harris was well aware that she was not welcomed at that school due to the color of her skin.

Some participants found it hard to hear several of the stories, as they were moved to tears.

DOVE co-chair Dr. Brian J. Daugherity, associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that he was honored to be able to meet those present and to listen and record interviews about the experiences of those who lived through school desegregation in Lunenburg County. Daugherity added, “We would like to thank our guests for their honesty and courage in relating their stories to us. We appreciate the contributions you have made to the historical record, by standing up to educational injustice and by sharing your memories of that process with us.”

DOVE was in Lunenburg for a few reasons. One, the group had never had the chance to have a meeting in the county, and they like to move around. Two, Lunenburg County was one of the last counties in Virginia to go through the school integration process; and three, DOVE sought to hear stories, to conduct interviews related to school desegregation, and to get to know some of the people who lived in the county during the early period of school integration.

DOVE is a statewide volunteer organization created in 2008 to uncover and publicize the history of school desegregation in Virginia and to find, catalog, and encourage the preservation of records that tell the story of Virginia’s school desegregation process. Last year, DOVE celebrated its 10- year anniversary. DOVE continues to preserve, package and promote the under-reported history of school desegregation in Virginia. Learn more at library/special-collections/dove. If you know someone who has a story to share about local school desegregation, contact DOVE at dove.