Fighting for Civil Rights: A Battleground in the Old Dominion

From October through the end of December, 2006, the Fredericksburg Area Museum hosted a traveling exhibit, Civil Rights in Virginia.

Teachers were encouraged to bring middle and high school students to the museum to come face to face with this turbulent time in the state's history. An excellent exhibition curriculum guide, The Story of Virginia: Becoming Equal, is available for educators.

Designed by the Virginia Historical Society, the image-filled panels and artifacts draw visitors back to a time that was much bleaker for the country's African-Americans. Among the pieces of "Jim Crow" history preserved for the generations are: 

  • A lunch counter used during a sit-in in Norfolk, Virginia
  • Separate water fountains for blacks and whites
  • A door from a Falmouth gas station marked "Ladies White"
  • Original KKK materials, featuring such slogans as "Be a Man--Join the Klan."
  • Enlarged photos of Gaye Todd (Adegbalola) and Jerine Mercer (O'Connell) marching with signs to protest segregation at downtown Fredericksburg's drugstore lunch counters.

A Counter to White Flight

Those young women were part of the NAACP's groundswell of protest in Virginia. Here the group filed more lawsuits than in any other state. These demonstrations went beyond lunch counters in the Old Dominion. As the exhibit notes, from 1960 to 1975 the number of white students in Richmond public schools declined from 45 to 21 percent as a result of "white flight" to the suburbs. Equal access to education by desegregation became a key issue.

In an effort to obey federal desegregation requirements, a public referendum was held, requesting that the mostly-white suburban and mostly-black city school districts be combined for the purposes of bussing. The vote did not pass. Finally, the two districts were combined -- by court order, after the decision in Bradley v. School Board of the City of Richmond.

Massive Resistance

Throughout the state, public schools closed rather than combine black and white students. This program of Massive Resistance was documented in the September 22, 1958 Time magazine cover story. The cover showed then-Virginia governor J. Lindsay Almond's face superimposed on a Confederate flag, with the state seal and motto (Thus to All Tyrants). The museum's exhibit includes a copy of this cover.

Further south in Danville, a textile and tobacco town, Virginia saw its most violent clashes of the Civil Rights years. On June 10, 1963, sixty high school students marched, demanding an end to segregation in their schools. The leaders were arrested. Others who fled down alleys were blasted with high-power water hoses and beaten with nightsticks. Parents who came to pick up their children from the police station were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Working for Their Country

The exhibit gives additional details on the Danville protest, as well as those held in Richmond by Virginia Union University students and earlier unrest in the 30s and the 40s. Wanting an equal chance for New Deal work and defense contracts, African-American men protested with this slogan:
"We loyal Negro-American citizens demand the right to work and fight for our country."

Eventually, President Franklin Roosevelt was forced to issue Executive Order #8802, which opened government jobs and defense contract work to African-Americans on the basis of equal pay for equal work. Later, President Harry S. Truman integrated African-Americans into every branch of the armed forces, also by executive order.

Local Hero

James Farmer wearing his Presidential Medal of FreedomJames L. Farmer, Jr., co-founded CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, in 1942. Among his many activities, he orchestrated Freedom Rides to protest segregation on public buses in 1961 and led voter drives and marches. He left the organization when it ceased to promote non-violent protest. On January 15, 1998, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton. He taught history at Mary Washington College for 13 years, until shortly before his death in 1999. His story is also part of the museum's exhibit.

Come to the Fredericksburg Area Museum before the close of 2006 to learn more about this important period of Virginia's history.
The following resources may also prove to be intriguing:

On the Web:

The Civil Rights Movement in Virginia (online version)

Johnny P. Johnson: Accomplished Local Artist, Teacher and Civil Rights Activist

In the Library:
Click on each title for more information.

Civil Rights: Fredericksburg's Story

A Different Story: A Black History of Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania, Virginia by Ruth Coder Fitzgerald

Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 by Juan Williams

Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement by James Farmer

Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia by J. Douglas Smith

The Moderates' Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia edited by by Matthew D. Lassiter and Andrew B. Lewis

Standing Before the Shouting Mob: Lenoir Chambers and Virginia's Massive Resistance to Public School Integration by Alexander Leidholt

Photos accompanying this article appear on HistoryPoint courtesy of The Free Lance-Star newspaper.