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. Finally, I could 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 1961 (my first year in school), I began clicking through digital files much faster than I could hunt through images on a microform reader. On page 13, September 6, 1961, I found a headline “Third Year of Integrated Schools Gets Underway in Charlottesville.” The article 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, which was apparently the last “all white” school remaining in the city.
I scrolled forward in the Browsing box to September 1962 and started clicking through files. I found what I was looking for in the October 19, 1962 issue. 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 plan to allow “pupils to transfer from schools where their race was in the minority.” Warren’s decision meant that the school system could no longer stall. 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. In 1912 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 and was able to access information from wherever I was—all the images as clean and legible as I could want them.