Virginia Disability History Timeline by Partnership for People with Disabilities, Virginia CSAL, & VCU (2015)
Between the 1900s and early 1960s, Virginia was heavily segregated and whites were still trying to regain the same control and power they had as slaveowners. The same eugenicists mentioned previously were up in arms about how to keep Black, Indigenous, immigrant, and white people away from each other so as to remain a “pure white race”. Thanks to eugenicists and the laws that supported them, people genuinely believed that any “mixing” with anyone from another race “pollutes” the blood, creating more inferior people (or undesirables/dependents). At the same time as all this promotion for eugenics and rise in fear and restriction of racial amalgamation, teachers and nurses in Virginia were taught how to identify if someone had any “Black blood” so if a student were passing for white, they could be identified and re-segregated.
“Registrars, health professionals and teachers [were ordered] to tighten their observations on those potentially passing for white who might have a trace of Black blood. Once identified, these individuals and families would be disenfranchised, just like their distant Black relatives.” (Eckenrode-Gibson 2007)
Essentially, teachers were taught how to be hyper-vigilant for “white-passing students” due to fear of Black and white people creating more people with disabilities together. It is highly probable this hyper-vigilance later affected the way disability is identified in students by teachers. What does this mean for the students who were identified – either correctly or incorrectly – as Black? What are the implications of this today for people who identify as disabled? Further, what are the effects of this ideology on the very definition of “disability”? Prior to this time, disability was commonly thought of as blindness, deafness, and cognitive or physical ailments; emotional, mental, and learning disabilities only really begin to take shape in Virginia after desegregation began.
Race, Disability & Education in Fairfax: Timeline of Newspaper Articles
Interestingly enough, in 1953, an article was published in The Washington Post which covered a school created for children with disabilities by their parents; in the photos attached to the article, it looks like the school for disabled children was actually desegregated before integration was even considered in Fairfax County. Because Virginia engaged in massive resistance after the 1954 and 1955 Brown v. Board decisions with white parents pulling their children out of schools to attempt to teach them in church basements, rented rooms, and school cafeterias, one of the proposed solutions was to build schools for Black students that would meet the new federal standards. When these schools were constructed, schools previously built and run by Black communities were expected to be abandoned for these new “training schools” that generally employed white teachers and often centered on vocational skills and farming jobs. As it was, Virginia, and specifically Fairfax County, did not really begin to desegregate their schools until the mid-1960s. In fact, at the same time lawmakers were scrambling to keep schools segregated “legally”, the government began providing more funding for facilities dedicated to the physically and mentally disabled community. Before this, teachers (similar to traveling nurses) would travel to the individual homes of people with disabilities in order to teach them. The schools and facilities built were similar to the previously all-Black schools in the area, in that they focused on vocational and job-related skills (or, training people how to be “proper” and “productive” employees); and they were often taught by white teachers. Again, the main priority in these schools was not on how to better tailor society to the needs of others, but how to indoctrinate children into being economically lucrative members of society as adults. Even as eugenics began to die out, the focus remained on how to disappear any “negative”, “bad”, or “impure” behaviors, thoughts, or abilities, which is really just to say these children were being violently indoctrinated into whiteness. There is ample evidence that the children who attended these schools experienced abuse, although this does not begin to really come to light until the late 1970s-early 1980s.
On May 10th, 1978, about 10-15 years after Virginia began to integrate, an article was published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighting a study conducted two years prior on teachers in Fairfax County. The study revealed that teachers had lower expectations for marginalized students and believed Black students had lower intellectual ability than their white counterparts. Coming across this article immediately reminded me of how teachers in Virginia were taught how to identify and report “inferior students” by assessing for “bad blood” starting in the early 20th century. Synthesizing this information helps us understand how these systems of oppression have worked together through time to ensure that Black, brown, disabled, and other minoritized students remain one in the same, and, primarily segregated from the “pure, innocent, white” population. Even the tests we use in schools, like IQ tests, placement exams, and other ways to determine ability are based on racist, eugenicist ideas that neglected to look at the social conditions of society which create the very problems they claim to try to eliminate by furthering violence, neglect, and conformity to people who need community, care, and accommodations.