Mitch Farish, content editor for the University of Virginia Library, is a Charlottesville native and lover of history.
When Phase II of the project to digitize back issues of the Daily Progress (from 1924 through 1964) went live on Virgo a few days ago I started playing around in the database looking for things I remembered from childhood in the ‘60s. Now was my opportunity to pin down something I was always curious about: Exactly when did my grade-school, Johnson Elementary, first admit African-American students? I began by searching in the “Browse Collection” box on the left side of the screen. Starting with my first year in school (September 1961), I began clicking through digital files much faster than I could hunt through images on a microform reader.
I found an article on page 13 from September 6, 1961, “Third Year of Integrated Schools Gets Underway in Charlottesville.” It stated that “school authorities” were “preparing to go back into court in the face of additional desegregation moves.” In 1961 the Charlottesville school system allowed enrollment of “35 Negroes” as “token integration.” None were enrolled at Johnson Elementary—apparently it was the last “all white” school remaining in the city.
I scrolled forward in the Browsing box to September 1962 and started clicking through files. In the October 19, 1962 issue I found what I was looking for. The Headline announced “City Fails to Win School Order Stay.” Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, refused to stay an appeals court order that ruled against Charlottesville’s “pupil assignment plan” that allowed “pupils to transfer from schools where their race was in the minority.” Warren’s decision meant that the Charlottesville school system couldn’t stall any longer. Two African-American students would be enrolled that year in Johnson Elementary, in compliance with the high court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that schools divided by race were inherently unequal.
Researching this piece also allowed me to travel much farther back in Charlottesville history. I’ve gone back in time as far as 1912, when the Jefferson theater opened on Main Street (now the Downtown Mall) as a venue for live performance. By the spring of 1914 the theater had evolved into a movie house showing programs of silent film shorts and an occasional feature, advertising with the catch phrase, “Always 5 reels, always 5 cents.” I explored the massive 136 page “Charlottesville Bicentennial” issue that came out on April 13, 1962 to commemorate the founding of the city. I never had to change a microfilm reel; I was able to access information from wherever I was, whenever I wanted; and I no longer had to put up with poor quality images—all the images that I expanded from thumbnails were as clean as I could want them.