It was 1963. The Civil Rights Act wouldn’t be passed until the following year. Restaurants and public facilities in our region were still segregated according to race. The infamous “whites only” signs had not gone away.
But that year Stafford County Schools graduated its first integrated high school class. It was a monumental step. While integration had begun slowly two years earlier, Stafford High’s graduating class of 1963 signaled a new day. Segregation in Virginia, at long last, was dying.
None of that means it was an easy road to school integration in Stafford. The Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of the nation’s schools was handed down in 1954. The court’s opinion directed that segregated school systems should be integrated with all “deliberate speed.”
Sadly, nothing about school integration was speedy. Virginia’s answer was massive resistance. In a bureaucratic effort to slow down integration, African American students had to apply — in person — for a place at a white school at the Pupil Placement Board in Richmond. It was a frustrating and demeaning process, and Stafford schools were adamant about staying segregated.
However, African American parents didn’t give up. Fortunately, a court decision forced the issue, and in 1961 two African American children enrolled at Stafford Elementary School. In 1962, bowing to the inevitable, Stafford integrated its only high school — 1963 would be the first integrated graduating class.
That was a notable milestone because from 1946 until 1960, the county provided an education for Black students only as far as the 10th grade. After that, if Black students wanted to finish high school they had to go to Fredericksburg and attend the city’s high school for Black students, Walker-Grant.
Many students, unable to make the trek, didn’t finish high school. This was only partly remedied in 1960 when Stafford extended its high school program for African American students to include grades 11 and 12. Though, when you get down to it, that was only a half measure.
Fortunately, not every white person in the county supported segregation. Some new county residents, who had not grown up with segregation, had no time for this kind of racism. Even some long-time residents, including a former supervisor from that era I talked to, was proud of his opposition to segregation, particularly at a time when most Virginia politicians wanted to keep schools segregated. He had changed his mind about segregation when he was in the Army in Korea and thought it was time things changed in Stafford.
The full integration of Stafford High School went smoothly. Segregation in our schools was beating its final retreat. Today, most members of that first integrated graduating class are retired and sadly some have passed on. However, they earned their place in our county’s history, and many still take pride in being a part of the Class of ’63.
David Kerr is a Stafford resident, an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.