RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – In 1970, Judge Robert Merhige, Jr., made a decision that changed thousands of Richmond students’ lives and the city’s public schools. From his courtroom, in response to the case of Bradley v. Richmond School Board, Merihige mandated busing to force integration within Richmond Public Schools.
“I’m going to a school that I really was not interested in going to at the time,” said Arnold Henderson, a 1975 graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, as he recalled his first day of school in 1970. “And I guess there was an element of the fear of the unknown as a young freshman going to high school.”
Instead of Armstrong High School which was in his home, Henderson was bused to Thomas Jefferson.
Because schools at the time were zoned entirely by neighborhood and Richmond’s were still largely segregated, most city schools were all or nearly all black or white. In the 16 years since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling determined that separate was not equal, Richmond’s schools had not changed.
“For the most part in my middle school days, the majority of my instructors were African American,” said Henderson. “When I got to attend TJ, I was introduced to white instructors, white administrators.”
It was the exact opposite experience for Anne Holton, daughter of then-Virginia Governor Linwood Holton. Holton, along with her brother, went to Mosby Middle School where Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School now stands.
“The very first class that day was a band room, so I played the violin,” said Holton. “And I in my little violin, and everybody else in their horn and wind instruments, we’re all facing the mirror, and I was the only little white face in this big sea of class.
“I was one of really a very small handful of white children that showed up for school that first week, that first year really because almost all the other white children that had been designated to go here, their parents managed to pull them out of the system one way or another.”
That anecdote is backed up by decades of school segregation research showing that throughout Virginia, many white parents chose to either send their kids to private school, homeschool with other white students or move to predominantly white nearby counties.
Among the students who remained in Richmond, both Henderson and Holton say their school buildings felt largely safe from the kinds of tensions driving many white families to pull their kids from the district.
“So as long as you had that red and white uniform on, you were family,” said Henderson. “And it didn’t matter what your skin color was.”
Both felt school activities helped bond students together in a way that their parents did not.
“It wasn’t like there was any racial animosity – there were only three white people here!” remembered Holton. “There wasn’t tension. Definitely, the parents had more trouble with it than the kids.”
Henderson and Holton felt that what they gained from being around more students who didn’t look like them was one of the most critical and impactful aspects of their educations.
“Many African American people have a lot of experiences of what it’s like to be in an extreme minority like that,” said Holton. “Here, I was getting that experience on the other side. This experience helped me experience African Americans as peers and I made strong, true friendships here, across races.”
Holton’s regret is that she feels her experience never became as widespread as she or her parents once hoped it would.
“So people sometimes ask me, ‘How did it feel to be part of integrating this school?’” remarked Holton. “I actually have changed my language. I said, ‘Well, we desegregated but we didn’t integrate it.'”
Tonight at 11 p.m., we looked into how Richmond Schools’ level of segregation today compares to what it was 51 years ago.