Recent events involving the Richmond School Board and accusations that our schools are becoming re-segregated have reminded me of a promise — the only promise — that my friend, neighbor and political mentor, the late civil rights lawyer Oliver W. Hill, ever asked of me. But first, some background.
Were it not for Hill, I never would have run for the School Board, much less been elected three times. It was Hill who told me to campaign for the seat after I tried unsuccessfully to enlist his help to convince his son, Oliver W. "Duke" Hill Jr., to run.
It wasn't exactly a cold call. Our families had known one another for nearly 20 years. My husband and Hill were both lawyers and members of the Old Dominion Bar Association, a group Hill helped found back in the day when the Richmond and Virginia bar associations did not accept Negro lawyers. Our daughter and his granddaughter were classmates at John B. Cary Elementary School. As a reporter for Style Weekly, I even wrote about Hill and how he tirelessly helped bring hundreds of legal challenges to segregation, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. After Hill lost his sight in his later years due to a series of strokes, I spent many happy hours reading to him in his house on Noble Avenue, and getting a fine education in the process.
Still, Hill said he knew that even if asked, Duke never would run for the office. He'd witnessed the ugliest of passions and prejudices as a young child seeing his father and others challenge segregation both at home and across the nation — the death threats attached to rocks flying through windows, phone calls in the middle of the night cursing his father and even the Ku Klux Klan's burning a cross in the family's front yard.
There was a long pause. Then Hill told me we didn't need to find anyone to run.
"But, Mr. Hill, you are almost 95 years old. Are you sure you are up for this one?"
"Not me," he answered — "you."
"You remember that I'm white, right?" I stammered.
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"All things considered, don't you think it best that we field a black candidate?"
"No," he answered firmly. "The only way Richmond is ever going to get over this is to get over it. Fixing our schools is going to require that black and white people learn how to work together."
It was my turn to be silent. And it was then that he exacted his promise.
"If you suit up and get elected, you must stay on the field and promise me that you will never, ever engage in a discussion of the re-segregation of Richmond's schools, without pointing out that these schools have never been desegregated."
So there it is: the Promise.
Richmond's schools have never really been desegregated. All that's happened here since 1954 — despite all the sound and fury surrounding the issue — is that we've gone from de jure segregation to de facto segregation. Fewer than 10 percent of the children who attend city schools are white.
So, the accusations that the School Board's recent 5-4 decision to close Clark Springs Elementary School and rezone parts of the city is somehow contributing to the re-segregation of Richmond's schools are the misguided efforts of those who prefer to maintain the status quo.
A March 2013 report from the California Civil Rights Project about Virginia's progress in desegregating our public schools notes that "of the three major metropolitan regions in Virginia, Richmond-Petersburg had, by far, the highest proportion of intensely segregated and apartheid school settings."
To be sure, race is involved. This is, after all, Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy and the birthplace of massive resistance.
Indeed, there are some unholy alliances at play including Richmond school administrators' delivering bad data, university professors skewing data to serve their own purposes and community activists race baiting about one part of the plan and conveniently forgetting that the board's decision actually closes two schools built specifically for black children — one atop a landfill, Norrell, and one on land belonging to Hollywood Cemetery, Clark Springs.
Despite ugly accusations to the contrary, this effort to close schools and realign attendance zones isn't racially motivated. It is a worthy attempt to bring more middle-class students — white and black — into the system. However, as with all decisions in this city, there are racial and socio-economic consequences — intended and unintended — that need deep and honest discussion.
Accusations that this school board — composed of seven black people and two white, one of whom is the father of two black sons — is racist are ludicrous. Similarly, people in the community calling some school board members "white devils" because they happen to have a white mother or father help no one, least of all the children who attend our schools.
If we truly want progress in Richmond, we need to recognize how it's been impeded for decades by knee-jerk racial politics and disingenuous politicians — white and black — using race to divide and manipulate our community for their own purposes. If we want substantive and sustained improvements in our schools we need to reject false racial issues and focus on the children.
As a younger man, Hill showed Virginia and the nation that he had the vision to see that we needed to abolish segregation. And as a blind man in his 90s, he showed that he still had more vision than most when he said: "The only way Richmond is ever going to get over this is to get over it." S
Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.
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