Breaking News – Twelve-year old Gloria Thompson along with classmates from elementary school, Michael Jones, Lance Newman and Ronald Deskins, desegregated schools (Stratford Junior High) in Arlington, Virginia on February 2, 1959. Youths have been breaking barriers for a very long time and today’s trauma victims in Parkland, Florida are part of a long tradition of our civil and human rights movements. Just as we recognize our youth today (2018) are savvy and well organized, the integration at the Stratford Junior High School in 1959 was also a successfully orchestrated event.
National and local organizations had been involved in legal challenges. There were IQ testing and selection of the chosen four. Intense parental involvement included teachers from the community prepared the students’ academically and mentally. Community leaders coordinated between the school system, her community, and everybody’s parents. It was a single landmark event for Arlington County. That was also true for our segregated community of ‘Halls Hill’ locked in off both sides of Lee Highway, and anchored by John M. Langston Elementary School.
Gloria’s sister, Clarissa, had been a named claimant in court battles to facilitate the integration of Arlington County schools. She had finished top of her class, at the segregated Hoffman-Boston High School in South Arlington. Kids were used to being bussed to a school far away from the nearby Stratford Junior High. That day would change everything, months and years followed by the second and third wave of students who fought in court or became eligible to go to Stratford based on grades. Many students, from the community, chose to stay and go to the segregated Hoffman-Boston. Also the kids from ‘Halls Hill’ went to other nearby desegregated schools thereby splitting up the youth in the community. Gloria was popular at the segregated school and had made new friends. With this change, she would become isolated and far away from her new friends one normally would have in junior high school. She never complained.
A big driver for integrating schools was Gloria’s Mother who believed that a good education was the ticket to success. Our activist Mother (yes Gloria is my sister) wanted her eldest daughter, Clarissa, to have higher education ensuring her success and self sufficiency by going to college. Mother had us demonstrating at local movie houses, going to civil rights organizing meetings in Alexandria, putting her children in lawsuits challenging the status quo, in a relentless effort to get her son and daughters well educated. Gloria’s high test results made her the only girl in this school desegregation in Arlington. The only girl with women swirling around her, from the community, dedicated to her success.
As the youth in Parkland, Florida have been scarred by the loss of their friends and suffering psychological damage, so it was true for Gloria and her classmates. On the outside were changes that opened doors and improved educational access. On the inside she had to depend on our small segregated community for social development. Moving from Stratford Junior High to integrating the overwhelmingly white Washington-Lee High School (W-L) was a continuation of isolation dedicated purely to the importance of learning opportunities but a social flop with psychological challenges day in and day out. Probably due to my mother’s insistence, my brother attended W-L briefly, due to fist fights over insults, he later finished high school with a GED. (He was a warrior). They thought the workshop teacher was a janitor! The hard work of desegregation put Gloria Thompson and her classmates on the map in the Halls Hill (Now Highview Park) community and well documented in the Arlington, County Library.
It was a sacrifice and many fail to appreciate that fact. When young people, including at the time, my Mother’s children, who were thrust in front of Judges, School Boards, a sea of new and different cultural subsets of students, demonstrations to gain access to local movie houses in the face of Nazi opposition and relentless self-consciousness to avoid the wrong move cannot be quantified. As we celebrate Gloria, we acknowledge all those in and out of the spotlight during that time, since that time, and even today that have the courage to step forward and make that bold move for change forges a country meaningfulness, and proud of making a difference toward its future and democratic potential. What can we say? We say thank you over and over again.
Art and article by Lillian L. Thompson, for Lillianonline series ‘Black Herstory Month’