Suffolk residents remember landmark decision

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 16, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

The implications of racial segregation in public schools across America were numerous prior to 1954, but many educators refused to bow to the shortcomings.

Suffolk resident Charles O. Christian, a retired teacher and coach, taught physical education at the former Booker T. Washington High School, then on Lee Street. During segregation, he recalled, he was determined to give black students a first-class education – even though it came from second-hand books.

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Both Christian and fellow educators shared the belief that it was critical to expand beyond the barriers of the textbooks to ensure that the students still received a top-notch learning.

&uot;We would not accept excuses from students for failing,&uot; said Christian. &uot;We were concerned and really worked hard for the students to produce good results. We also stuck to strong work ethics and, above all, taught them to make adjustments that would be basic to produce a good education.&uot;

On May 17, 1954 almost 50 years ago, the education of blacks throughout the nation was positively advanced due to a father who became a historical catalyst, changing the face of education.

It all started in Topeka, Kansas in 1951 when Linda Brown, a 3rd-grader who lived a few blocks from an all-white elementary school, was denied an opportunity to attend. As a result, she was forced to travel about a mile every day to attend the nearest black elementary school.

What became known as Brown versus the Board of Education was birthed when Oliver Brown successfully fought the school division to achieve equal access for his daughter and other black children throughout the country.

It was not an easy road for Brown; however, considering that he had to stand ground against a precedent, Plessy versus Ferguson, which had permitted separate but equal school systems for blacks and whites.

The desegregation of Suffolk schools gradually occurred around 1968. Fran Alwood, formerly a foreign language instructor and now a Suffolk School Board member, remembers both the periods of segregation and the beginning of desegregation. She assisted in organizing the programs at the former Andrew J. Brown Elementary School on Lee Street, which was an all-black school prior to desegregation.

Alwood’s son was among the 10 percent of white students attending John F. Kennedy High School when it was initially rezoned to integrate. In keeping with the changing landscape of public schools in Suffolk, Christian along with other black teachers at Booker T. was sent to teach at Suffolk High, a predominantly white school.

&uot;They thought that they were getting good teachers and I was determined to teach both black and white students with the same goals that I had a Booker T.,&uot; explained Christian.

Alwood said she’s always been a very strong supporter of integration to achieve the best possible environment for all students, black or white.

&uot;It was always very obvious to me that separate but equal may have been separate but not very equal,&uot; she added.