Publisher’s Note: William P. Andrews was one of the first nine Black students to graduate from George Wythe High School in Richmond, Va. in 1965. In this essay, he remembers that time in history and his visit to his 50th class reunion
By William Pernell Andrews
1965 was the midpoint of a decade characterized by a social revolution, arguably, unlike any other period in the 20th century.
It was the year of antiwar sentiment, as the first combat troops were deployed to an escalating conflict in South Vietnam. It was the year that the British music invasion vied for the attention of the American public along with the Motown and Memphis sounds. Though the Oscar for Best Picture went to The Sound of Music on the big screen, Ben Cartwright, Lucy and Ricky, and Andy Griffith captured the spirit of comedy and drama on that growing phenomenon called television.
Bill Cosby made history by being the first African-American male to be in a starring role in a network TV series. America and much of the free world lamented the loss of historic icons Nat King Cole, Winston Churchill, and Adlai Stevenson.
The country was operating under a thriving wartime economy: the average income was approximately $6,500 per year; the average price of a new home was $13,600, while the rent for a 2-3 bedroom apartment was $110 per month. The price of a gallon of gas soared from 22 cents to 32 cents.
1965 was a year in which all of society’s attitudes, beliefs and values were being questioned and challenged. On city streets, in the halls of academia, inside political backrooms and corporate boardrooms, issues such as religious thought and practice, marriage and family, social relationships, generational conflicts, the ever-growing military-industrial complex, the role and work of politics, and this country’s place on the world stage were all the subjects of heated debate.
While the war in Vietnam was considered one of the major issues of that year, eminent scholar and social critic W.E.B. DuBois had declared two years earlier that no issue was more problematic or troublesome in America than that of race relations. The Civil Rights Movement, in 1965, was in full force and marked by tragedies and triumphs. The Watts Riots and the assassination of the Nation of Islam’s Minister, Malcolm X, were pivotal events.
The Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law, spurred no doubt, by the horrific scenes that were broadcasted nationwide, which illuminated the attack on marchers on their way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. High school graduations in Richmond, Virginia (as well as in other cities and states) were significant, historic events, as well, even if not recognized as such that year. It was the first year that nine African-American students graduated from one of the city’s premier schools, the previously all-white George Wythe High School.
Our journey to this point, however, really began in 1962-63. All of us were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, from the sit-ins in downtown Richmond to the bus rides to Western Virginia in order to encourage Black voters to register. Though young, we were very much invested in the goals and aims of the movement, particularly in education.
Our activities reached their peak, I believe, at the 1963 March on Washington. Despite arrests and beatings, the murders of involved individuals, and the countless daily assaults upon our humanity, we left Washington that hot steamy August day filled with hope and anticipation, as well as fears and anxieties. We felt revitalized, rejuvenated and empowered to challenge one of society’s most revered institutions.
Most of the initial nine African-American students entered George Wythe via the traditional means. They completed the appropriate transfer documents, which were submitted to the state’s Pupil Placement Board. Two of us chose to take a different route. We did not submit any documents, because we viewed this process as a bureaucratic roadblock designed to thwart efforts to desegregate the public schools, as had been directed by the justice system. We simply presented ourselves on the first day of school for registration.
The principal politely informed us that we could not be admitted. Our attorney, the Honorable Henry L. Marsh III, then an up and coming Civil Rights lawyer and future mayor of Richmond, immediately filed suit, which was heard in the U.S. District Court a few days later. Though testimony on both sides was given, the judge directed that our admission be completed without further delay.
Thus, our descent into an academic nightmare began. It had already been that way for those who had preceded us. Their experiences mirrored what had already begun in numerous schools and communities throughout the South.
Rather than offer a detailed list of incidents, I will state that, for the first semester, Black students had to be escorted from the school bus to the school building by the National Guard. For that year and the two years following, we were spat upon and hit by thrown food and water. We were jeered and called derogatory names. We were reprimanded for any behaviors that even appeared to violate the student code of conduct. Need any more be said?
Most disheartening, however, was the intolerance and bigotry demonstrated by the teachers and administrators. A number of teachers made it clear that they were unhappy having Black students in their classes and referred to us as “nigras.” Academic advisors, when any advising was offered, asserted we were not “college material” and strongly recommended that we seek a technical or vocational education. Doing so, they believed, would provide us with a “skilled trade,” as opposed to a college degree, which would surely minimize the prospects for employment. To add insult to injury, some White schools in the greater Richmond area refused to play against George Wythe in certain sports because one Black player was on the team.
In all fairness, not all students and teachers were of this mindset. There were teachers whose love and passion for the profession outweighed their biases. They did try to be supportive and nurturing and treated Black students with respect. Many of the teachers simply did not know how to interact with us. Likewise, there were students who were also tolerant and respectful toward us. In fact, a group of White and Black boys would often meet on Sunday afternoons, during football season, to play against each other.
So, let’s be clear. This was mid-1960s America, at its oppressive and segregated best. The Commonwealth of Virginia was just as Southern and racist as any place in the Deep South. Moreover, the prevailing belief staunchly adhered to by most White people was that Black people were intellectually inferior and should be viewed as just a little better than animals.
Even though some teachers and students had been raised in or influenced by such a racist society, they chose not to follow those tenets. Some did so, at the risk of incurring the ire and wrath of their peers. In fact, a number of White students, many of whom came from well-to-do families, revealed that they had been threatened with being disowned if they, in any way, associated with Black students.
As I share these memories of our time at George Wythe High School, one of my classmates made note that what made it most difficult was that we were, for all intents and purposes, on our own. We learned some awful lessons through this experience, above and beyond the classroom.
The racism that guided White society was long standing and all pervasive. More importantly, it was psychologically damaging. As in the classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, from which part of the title of this essay was taken, White students went on about their lives, at best oblivious to the pain and suffering of their fellow students. At worst, they did not care. Black students learned the true meaning of loss, anger, and yes, even hatred, not so much for the people, but for the awful lessons of history, the inhumanity some expressed toward their fellows and the social conditions that brought us to that time and place.
This essay is not an indictment of all White students and adults. Nor is it a discourse to malign the superb academic institution that was George Wythe High. We are returning, in 2015, to remember the struggle and celebrate our triumphs. We’ve come with great pride in our accomplishments, including the attainment of graduate degrees and positions in government, academia, and corporate America. Indeed, we have rejoiced at some changes in the nation, including America’s first African-American president and in Virginia, the first African-American governor.
This document seeks only to memorialize the very real historical events in the city of Richmond and its public schools. It is a challenge to Black and White 1965 high school graduates to remember from whence we have come.
Dr. Martin Luther King once noted that “… when history finally records the magnificence of the Civil Rights Movement, it will not simply make note of the despicable acts and horrible words of the bad people, but will illuminate the woeful and apathetic inaction of the good people.”
While it is acknowledged that, to some degree, those White students, teachers and other adults, were influenced by the dictates of their families and communities; it does not alter the fact that Black students suffered immeasurably. That suffering provoked a resolve and resilience, supported and nurtured by our peers, families and community, to overcome.
We must remember, as we consider current events in cities across the country with clear racial overtones, we, as a society, still have a long way to go. It is a call to acknowledge and understand the harsh legacies of history.
It is a call to take thoughtful and sustained action to reverse the dangerous course of current human affairs. As has been noted by numerous social critics, if we remain ignorant of the lessons of our racial history and its impact on the national psyche, we will have no sense of our present.
Such ignorance dooms us to repeat that history. At a time when it is considered politically incorrect to do so, let us appeal to one another to ensure that such will not be the case.
William P. Andrews, Ed.M., CSOTP, LMHC (MA) is a Mental Health Clinician, District One, Probation & Parole in Richmond, VA
… Next Week: Bill Andrews Shares His reunion With Classmates At His 50th High School Reunion.