Student Voices Meet School Silence

*Note on terminology: prejudiced language referring to persons of color might be present in this exhibit. Such terminology appears in historical documents.*

The Fairfax County public school system started the process of desegregation in the fall of 1965. This major transformation in education occurred after roughly one hundred years of segregation in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

In 1965 the school board and Department of Education co-published a how-to manual to help personnel with the process of desegregation. In general language that skirted issues of racial division, this guidebook presented “the challenge that faces the Fairfax County Schools" as a moment of "recognition of all students, teachers, administrators, and supporting service personnel as individuals in their own right”[1].

In May 1967, a delegation of four teenagers from the Vienna Teen Council asked the Fairfax County Board of Education to create policies that eased racial hostilities in public schools. Students victimized by racist attacks recounted their experiences.[2] For example, Jerry Thomas, a Black student from Madison High School, told the board about the “white power” incidents at his  school involving insults and slurs written on school tables. After hearing such testimonies, the board unanimously condemned acts of racial violence but said that a system-wide approach to address racial conflict was not warranted.  Each principal, the board insisted, should confront school-specific  problems.

In this Vienna teen story one quote comes from a Langley High School student, Katherine Harris. She asked the board to set up a training program that focused on an “integrated approach rather than a desegregation approach.” She wanted this program to include all teachers and administrators who dealt directly with students. Harris recognized that putting minority students in previously all-white schools, what she called the desegregation approach, was vastly different from integrating and cultivating a new cohesive environment. The school board said it would take the matter under consideration and then ruled that incidents and concerns related to difficult race relations was a problem that needed to be dealt with by each school.[3]

In this article, a Mount Vernon-area school board member named Howard Futch explained the challenges with enacting sweeping reforms to address problems of race relations. He felt that it was the principal's responsibility to be “out with his students and be quick to alert people that a problem does exist.” Futch said that “the board can legislate but the solution is to deal directly with principals and administrators.” Students countered this line of argument, explaining that principals “fear to act without knowing what the board policy is.” The back-and-forth between board members and students showed that the former did not want to take responsibility for dealing with difficult issues of race.[4]

INTERVIEWER—Well, what did the principal do to the white student who wore the Afro wig?

STUDENT—Not a thing! Not one thing!

The October 1973 issue of the Fairfax Schools Bulletin discussed the hot-button issue of school discipline. This article recounted a pep rally in which a white student donned an “Afro wig” and walked onto the gym floor behind a group of Black student representatives.[5] One Black student witnessed this act of racist mockery and cursed at the white student with the hair piece. Upon hearing the profanity, the Fairfax Schools Bulletin reported, the principal, who was present at the time, expelled the angry Black student. The wigged white student received no punishment.

Black Cultural Alliance 1975

Another article from the 1975 County School Bulletin titled, "Black Students Reinforce Each Other," explained that Black students got into trouble because they were not able to get support from school staff or fellow white students.  As it turned out, Black students relied on one another. This article details the extracurricular activities of the Black Cultural Alliance Club at Fort Hunt High School. One quote reveals that minority students in Fairfax County high schools felt that they had "no place in clubs and other organizational activities.” Often formal extracurricular outlets were part of national organizations in which members voted on applicants, thereby enabling racial exclusion to occur, if racists determined club composition.[6] Instead of trying to fight the system in place, Black students - as the title of the article expresses - had to rely on each other and create Black-centric clubs.

Black-student-originated clubs provided community and opportunity. For example, these clubs went on college tours to Southern HBCUs like Shaw and Hampton. Members also participated in Black history week programs and school homecoming celebrations. One item of note in the article is that the school-based groups advertised that they were open to all in Fort Hunt High School. It was important for these Black students to be inclusive. 

Herndon High School Incident

On October 22, 1974 a fight broke out between a Black and white male student in the cafeteria of Herndon High School. The scuffle escalated into a melee involving 70 students. Classes were promptly canceled; the school was closed the next day. One student was injured and had to go to the hospital. A newspaper article about the incident speculated on the causes: “Many parents spoke among themselves of the lack of communication among different groups of students between faculty and students and between this school and home.” Blame was placed on school overcrowding.  Bullies were also identified as instigators.[7] Full classrooms and mean actors were probably contributing factors but ultimately the fight was triggered by something else.

Reston Black Focus, a community-based organization, took notice. It  saw the violent conflict in one of its local public schools as another instance of systemic racism in Fairfax County. The group had formed an education committee, which wrote a report about the Herndon High incident and its likely causes, and then offered possible solutions.[8]


A violent uprising or "riot" can amplify the voices of those who have been ignored. Students' concerns went unheard by the Herndon High School administration for a long time.

This highlighted sentence uncovers a possible root of the problem. The board, local school administrations, and teachers attempted to solve complex issues of race relations in disconnected  conversations.  Since minority students were rarely, if ever invited to these dialogues, their voices were not heard.

Reston Black Focus summed up the problems causing racial conflict in local high schools and recommended solutions in a report sent to the school superintendent’s investigation committee.    

The items highlighted relate not only to Herndon High but also other schools attended by minority students. The point about penalties and infractions (#9) helps to explain why one Black student got expelled for using profanity against a prejudiced white classmate wearing an "Afro" wig.  Minority participation in extracurricular activities is the subject of #10, reminding us that Black Cultural Alliance clubs were formed to foster community when racism prevented Black students from becoming members of after-school organizations.

A Few More Voices 

High School Students Claim Relations Poor

This survey from 1977 revealed that Black students protested the difficult race relations in county classrooms. Albert G. Tippet was the Fairfax human relations coordinator for public schools. In this newspaper article, he downplayed the survey saying that the results were over-generalized. The survey included 22 high schools, a large number of institutions with a lot of aggregated data.  Tippet's preemptive defense sidestepped the severity of the issue[10].


High School Students Claim Relations Poor

The results of the survey were much more damning than Tippet or the school board stated. Fairness in discipline was still an unresolved issue for many minority students. Less than half of the students believed that administrators enforced discipline fairly. Furthermoe, when questioned, 60% of Black students said they did not feel comfortable in their own schools. This is yet another reminder that these schools were not built for Black excellence in education. In one of the most shocking questions, 29% of Black students said they felt like failures.[11]

These are just a few examples in which students voiced their concerns to principals and administrators, and even the Fairfax County School Board. As Black students were enrolled in previously white schools, it was clear that the schools themselves were not prepared for peaceful and cohesive integration. Black students often felt unwelcome in these new spaces, even in the 1970s. As a consequence, Black students relied on each other and formed group-like communities within these schools.

By Rachel Amon 

[1] A Guide to Intergroup Education, Fairfax County School Board, 1965.

[2] Bruce Nivens, “Vienna Teens Seek Race Problem Help," The Virginia Sun, May 30, 1967. 

[3] Bruce Nivens, “Vienna Teens Seek Race Problem Help., The Virginia Sun, May 30, 1967.

[4] “Student Group Asks Board to Promote Racial Peace,” The Virginian Sun, June 1, 1967.

[5] John Davis, “Coming to Grips with Issues of Discipline, Learning,”  October 2, 1973," Fairfax School Bulletin Vol. 10-11. Sept. 1973-June 1975. Fairfax, VA , n.d.

[6] Virginia Williams, “Black Students Reinforce Each Other," January 1975, Fairfax School Bulletin Vol. 10-11, Sept.1973-June 1975, Fairfax , VA , n.d.

[7] “HHS Reopens After Tuesday Fight ,” The Reston Times, October 24, 1974.

[8] Reston Black Focus Education Commitee, Report: Summation of the Problems at Herndon High School And Summation of the Recommendations for the Solution of These Problems. October 22, 1974 (Reston , VA : Reston Black Focus Education Commitee,1974).

[9] “High School Students Claim Relations Poor," 1977

[10] Stephen Cohen, “Fairfax School Surveys Elementary Students Charge Discrimination,” The Virginia Sun, July 8, 1977.

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