Contributed photo - The Stratford Commemorative Trail in Arlington traces the steps of four brave seventh graders as they desegregated Arlington Public Schools in 1959.
Contributed photo - The Stratford Commemorative Trail in Arlington traces the steps of four brave seventh graders as they desegregated Arlington Public Schools in 1959.

In 1959, four Black students desegregated Arlington Public Schools. On Friday, the school division unveiled the Stratford Commemorative Trail in tribute. 

ARLINGTON – Feb. 2, 1959 wasn’t a normal school day at Stratford Junior High School. Police escorted four students to the building, in pursuit of an education. While most seventh graders focused on math and science, Gloria Thompson, Ronald Deskins, Lance Newman and Michael Jones had other things on their minds.

“It is a point of pride for the entire commonwealth because they became the first students to desegregate a public school in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia,” Dr. Francisco Durán, superintendent of Arlington Public Schools, said. “That is a day that will be forever remembered because history was made and it was made here.”

E. Leslie Hamm Jr. remembered the joy in his neighborhood when the four arrived home after their first school day.

“A real celebration, real proud for what [they] accomplished,” Leslie said. 

Leslie was very familiar with what the four children went through, as he had dealt with it two years prior. In 1957, Leslie and two other Black students, George Nelson and Joyce Bailey, had tried to attend the school.

“It was frightful,” Leslie said. “Gorilla suits and Nazi flags and [neo-Nazi] George Lincoln Rockwell [was there]. It was really a very threatening and terrible time for us as young people.”

When they reached the school, the principal turned Leslie and the other two children away. However, two years later, things changed. Leslie himself would make history at the school in 1960. He became the first Black person to graduate from a desegregated white school in Virginia.

And on June 11, 2021, the school district where Leslie Hamm and the other children fought to be recognized paid tribute to them

A Long Road

The road to get to Friday was 62 years long.

Dorothy Hamm Middle School in Arlington held an invitation-only event, which school leaders also broadcast publicly online. The event celebrated the grand opening of the new Stratford Commemorative Trail.  The outdoor area features panels telling the story of the local school integration and desegregation.

“One of the dominant themes you will see on the panels challenges us to take action,” said Dorothy Hamm Principal Ellen Smith. “It is a powerful reminder to our middle school students that, like the heroes you will hear from today, young people can make good trouble. They can make a difference.”

At the ceremony, former students like Leslie and individuals who lived through that time took the podium. They told stories of years past.  

The Stratford Commemorative Trail

Michael Jones was one of the four children who integrated the school. He recalled the difficult time they faced, but also expressed hope for the future.

“We know that Arlington County, the state of Virginia and this nation has come a long ways in its treatment of Black citizens since 1959,” Jones said. “Schools were integrated and other laws were made that benefitted Black citizens, but as evidence by recent events in the years past, as previously stated, there’s still much work to do. However, with events such as these at Dorothy Hamm Middle School and other activities taking place in this nation, we can see in the future a more diverse nation, a nation that provides better justice – true liberty and justice – for all, regardless of race, religion or color.”

The Stratford Commemorative Trail also tells the story of Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old Farmville resident who led a strike of separate, but unequal schools. Her actions became the only student-led legal case included the historic Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

“Theirs all is a story of perseverance. It’s a story of struggle. But it’s a story, ultimately, of triumph,” said Christian Dorsey, Arlington County board member. “And we, as heirs of their legacy, are inspired by their courage and accept the baton to further their commitment to justice with our ongoing efforts in this county to uproot systemic racism and to advance equity.” 

Contributed photo – E. Leslie Hamm, Jr. became the first Black graduate from a white Virginia school in 1960.

A Need for Commemoration

The idea for the Stratford Commemorative Trail traces back to 2017. It involves everyone from school leaders to community members, students, designers and implementers.

The school superintendent established a specialized committee, which met several times in 2017. They created a framework for the commemoration, which included a large-scale, exterior feature. The decision to place the historical information in an outdoor area ensured that more people had access to the story. 

Main Street Design brought the idea to life, incorporating not only the story from the 1950s, but also modern-day contributions. 

“There’s a series of granite pavers that cascade set into the landscape from the hill at Old Dominion down to the front door that roughly trace the approximate path that the students took on that day in February, 1959. Those pavers symbolically represent the act of integration,” said Ben Burgin, Arlington Public Schools assistant director of design and construction. “And secondly, there are a series of interpretive panels discussing national, state and local history of school desegregation. And those panels honor the individuals instrumental in bringing that to fruition.”

The panels feature commissioned illustrations, based on historic photographs. They also feature student artwork. 

Monique O’Grady, Arlington Public Schools school board chair, noted the importance of the Stratford Commemorative Trail.

“There is power in retracing the footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement,” O’Grady said. “Telling our stories matters. And names matter. Now as people walk up to the Dorothy Hamm Middle School, they can learn about the journey she and other families and students took to change our history.” 

Marching Forward 

These days, the principal noted that the middle school focuses on inclusion, equity and accountability. That included highlighting the history of the Civil Rights Movement that happened on the property. 

“In building this school community, we as a staff have really sought to envision and implement an environment in which every single person knows they belong and are equipped with the skills to become what they desire,” Smith said.  

She expressed the responsibility modern-day students have to speak up, to say something and to make good trouble. 

Modeling that idea, two current Dorothy Hamm students – Kiduse Yinsu and Darya Wilson – shared a collaborative poem. The school’s eighth grade class modeled the piece after Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World.” The students shared hopes for a brighter, more inclusive future. 

Also at the event, Lisa Moore, Dorothy Hamm assistant principal, presented those personally involved with the desegregation of Arlington Public Schools with a commemorative coin. 

Connecting the history, on one side of this coin is the picture of Gloria, Lance, Ronald and Michael,” Moore said. “On the other side, we have our current school name and logo so that we are making history stay alive for our current and future students.” 

Learning and Reflecting 

Coming full-circle with the commemorative trail, now visitors will see the sacrifice, hardship and ultimate victory that occurred on the site.

“We are honored that this important story can be shared for future generations of Arlingtonians,” Dorsey said.

Serving as a place to learn and reflect, the Stratford Commemorative Trail is open to the public. 

“Now that’s a spot where forever Arlington community, students, staff, anyone who comes here, will be able to see that that living history is still alive,” Durán said. “And it will help us to reflect upon the importance that whenever we walk our path, that we remember the path of those four brave students who trail blazed and provided the opportunity for so many of us.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com

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