When Albemarle school officials honored the 26 students who integrated the county’s schools, they wanted to recognize the courage of those students and highlight the barriers they had to overcome.
Last spring, officials installed signs at Albemarle High and Stone-Robinson Elementary schools and at the Greenwood Community Center that cite the "Passive Resistance" students faced.
But in recent weeks, other elected officials have questioned the use of that phrase to refer to state efforts to deny black students an equal education; they say the three markers should reference Massive Resistance.
As Albemarle, Charlottesville and other communities around the state look to tell a more inclusive history, a one-letter difference on a historical marker could hinder that effort, county Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said.
“Of most import to me is when we get our history wrong and refuse to fix it, we re-marginalize people and groups who were burdened originally with these awful laws and programs,” Mallek wrote in a Jan. 14 email to the School Board, Board of Supervisors and two county staff members. “That is unacceptable.”
Mallek publicly raised the issue at a board meeting earlier this month and has since traded several emails with schools Superintendent Matt Haas, according to documents sent to The Daily Progress.
School division officials say the use of "passive" was not an oversight, but a deliberate attempt to describe what African American students faced in 1963.
Haas and the school division said the term "Passive Resistance" refers to the systems in place in 1963 that replaced Massive Resistance. They have pointed to the broader mission of the markers, which were unveiled in May.
“These markers remind us of a dark time in the history of our county, the vestiges of which remain today, and the importance of standing strongly against racism,” division spokesman Phil Giaramita said in a statement to The Progress.
Historians told The Progress that while the reference to Passive Resistance is not technically wrong, it’s not a widely used term to describe what followed after the Supreme Court of Virginia struck down a collection of laws that were part of Massive Resistance in 1959.
Those laws tried to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision by establishing a state board to assign students to schools and authorizing the governor to close any integrated school.
In interview, experts said that while the laws were struck down, active resistance to integration continued for years.
“It was a two-decade struggle,” said James Hershman, a lecturer at Georgetown University who wrote Encyclopedia Virginia’s entry on Massive Resistance.
School officials said their use of Passive Resistance referred to token efforts to integrate schools and prevention of full-scale desegregation. Encyclopedia Virginia also references this change in state policy.
Parents of the Albemarle 26 and those who followed had to apply to the Pupil Placement Board in order to attend Stone-Robinson Elementary, the Greenwood School and Albemarle High School, officials said.
In explaining the decision to use the phrase on the markers, officials cited a page on the Virginia Museum of History & Culture website that referenced Passive Resistance.
In response to a Progress inquiry, the museum updated the page Friday, including saying that the use of “Passive Resistance” was misleading.
“Historically, the phrase ‘passive resistance’ has been used to describe a range of non-violent tactics — such as sit-ins, boycotts and so forth — embraced by civil rights activists and advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders,” the museum wrote. “We should not have used this phrase to describe the ways in which many white Virginians continued to resist integrating schools after the state’s official and overt program of Massive Resistance ended.”
The page is now titled “Ongoing Resistance to Desegregation."
Mallek said she thinks it’s important for the markers to say Massive Resistance, “because it’s the truth.”
“There was no program of Passive Resistance implemented by the commonwealth of Virginia in this case. … ” Mallek wrote in an email. “‘Passive resistance’ most often describes general nonviolent efforts by individuals and groups in civil rights campaigns. In this situation, ‘passive resistance’ has been used by some to refer to choice programs and white flight away from urban centers and to private schools … however, those are not examples of ‘state efforts’ and do not fit in this sentence.”
Other local historians agree.
“‘Passive Resistance’ would be a shockingly inappropriate phrase to use to describe the widespread, state-sanctioned opposition of white people to the integration of public schools,” UVa history professor John Edwin Mason wrote in an email.
Albemarle County schools began to integrate in 1963 — nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional. By 1967, the division was fully integrated.
Desegregation of the county schools has been the subject of many meetings over the last year as the division decided whether to rename Paul H. Cale Elementary School, which was named for the superintendent who oversaw the division from 1947 to 1969. Ultimately, the School Board decided to rename Cale.
In May, on the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the school division honored and publicly recognized those 26 students who integrated the division for the first time. The three markers list the names of each student and credit the parents and community members who led the desegregation effort in the county.
Kirt von Daacke, assistant dean and associate history professor at the University of Virginia and co-chair of the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, said it’s difficult to capture change over time and nuance in a historical marker.
After reviewing the marker at Albemarle High School, he said the text does a good job with the history, but nuance gets a bit lost in the sentence referencing “Passive Resistance.”
“I really think the problem is that the term, which is not widely known the way ‘Massive Resistance’ is, is offered without defining or explaining and is treated as a proper-named movement,” he wrote in an email.
Karen Sherry, curator of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, said resistance to integration continued after 1959.
“But I wouldn’t call those activities passive resistance,” she said.
Hershman, with Georgetown, said responses to integration in the area included cross-burnings and bomb threats.
“There were a lot of ugly things connected to it,” he said. “They would’ve been better off just saying resistance.”
Haas wrote in a Jan. 11 email to Mallek that the school division did its homework in crafting the markers.
“I am proud of the handsome signs and the ACPS alumni who integrated Albemarle Public Schools against resistance — both massive and passive — that those in power used to maintain the status quo against children,” he wrote.
Marker installation issues
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources manages the Virginia Historical Highway Marker program, which is for markers for topics of regional, statewide and national significance.
The DHR also helps manage a local marker program, but the goal of separate programs is to avoid the impression that the local markers have been approved or reviewed for accuracy by the department and its Board of Historic Resources, according to DHR’s website.
Local markers on public property still need approval from the state board for design, appearance and size and height specifications, according to state code.
Jennifer Loux, the state marker program manager, said the Board of Historic Resources has not approved either the design or the content of the Albemarle 26 local markers.
“It would be possible to try to get them approved post-facto at our March 2020 board meeting,” Loux said in an email to Mallek.
Loux told The Progress that it’s not unusual for localities to get marker designs approved after the fact.
Giaramita said the division consulted with the state, but DHR staff members objected to listing the names of individual students.
“Eliminating the names of the students was unacceptable to us since the purpose of the markers was to recognize the individual students and families for their courage and the importance of their actions,” he said. “We withdrew our application and took the state up on their offer to help us proceed with the project on our own.”
Albemarle does not currently have a specific local marker program; county spokeswoman Emily Kilroy said the county’s Office of Equity and Inclusion has been working with the county’s Historic Preservation Committee and other groups to research community history and may consider enacting a specific local marker program.
In July, a historic marker telling the story of John Henry James, an ice cream salesman who was lynched in Albemarle County by a mob after being accused without trial of assaulting a woman, was installed outside of the Albemarle County Circuit Courthouse. The Equal Justice Initiative, which the James marker is part of, had its marker design approved by the state board in 2018.