The 1972 Black History Week program at Charlottesville’s Lane High School had been tranquil. But during a medley of songs, including the James Weldon Johnson hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Esther Vassar noticed rows of white students walking out of the auditorium, and shed silent tears.
Vassar, a young English teacher new to Lane, had organized the history observance. The same program had gone off the day before without a discordant note. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is reverently known as the Black National Anthem, although Vassar says she did refer to it as such on this occasion.
The walkout by about 50 white students was followed by a counter-protest by Black students. “I’d go to my mailbox every day and I’d have hate mail, simply for doing what the principal asked me to do,” Vassar recalled.
A committee was charged with investigating the “white walkout” and following Black counter-protest. Ultimately, no disciplinary action was taken against any of the students involved, according to a March 12, 1972, story in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Vassar and two Black members of the Lane High class of 1972 — James Bryant and Ronnie Johnson — feel an estrangement from Lane that endures. Neither alum attended a Lane class reunion in August; judging from photos of the event, few Black alumni did.
This weekend, Johnson and Bryant, a retired educator and vice chair of the Charlottesville School Board, will convene a program in the building that houses their former segregation-era elementary school. The “Jefferson School Forever Reunion, 1960-72” will be held at what is now the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.
Vassar will be Saturday’s keynote speaker.
Jefferson Elementary closed in 1965 after Charlottesville desegregated its schools.
“We felt that going back to Jefferson, a lot of our classmates, they would feel safe, they would feel valued and they would feel wanted. They didn’t feel that with the regular class,” Bryant said during a recent interview that included Vassar and Johnson.
If separate reunions strikes you as a sad denouement, consider this: Some Black people wax nostalgic for the segregation era because integration brought the continued trauma or racism without the supportive cocoon of community that segregation imposed. And yes, I’ve experienced similar Black History Week assembly discord.
“That integration in 1966 was an eye opener because at that point in time, none of us had had white teachers,” Bryant recalled. “So it was a culture shock for us. And during that period from sixth grade on, we were almost treated like second-class citizens.” He recalled a guidance counselor attempting to dissuade him from attending college, urging him to pursue a trade instead.
Vassar would go on to teach college for 20 years. She’d head the Virginia Department of Minority Business Enterprise, chair the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority Board and serve as national ombudsman of the U.S. Small Business Administration before her retirement.
At Lane, she was the mentor alienated Black students craved.
“When Mrs. Vassar arrived at Lane High School in 1971 with her turbans and her dashikis and her Afrocentric look, we said, ‘Wow, this is what we have been waiting for,’” Bryant recalled.
She introduced Black literature such as Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” as well as the poetry of Nikki Giovanni.
Despite receiving some “very lovely notes from students” amid the hostility, Vassar wanted no part of a School Board meeting to address the controversy. Black parents persuaded her to attend.
People in the packed room made comments such as, “This teacher … made our students pledge allegiance to the Black national anthem,” which wasn’t true, she said. “I was this 25-year-old girl who was this monster in their minds.”
Near the meeting’s conclusion, the Rev. Henry Mitchell, the School Board’s lone Black member, read the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Vassar recalled. “And he said, ‘What is offensive about that?’ Not another word was spoken and the assembly was dismissed.”
Williams: The decline in child literacy is a crisis. Author Maya Payne Smart says the remedy starts at birth.
Saturday’s program will also feature Andrea Douglas, executive director of the
Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
, which is documenting the experiences of Black students and teachers who integrated Charlottesville’s schools as part of
The 1966 Project
. Bryant will interview Vassar as part of the
Teachers in the Movement Project
by UVA education professor Derrick Alridge of
The Center for Race and Public Education in the South.
“I’m so glad that we have had a chance to give her an opportunity to tell her story,” a tearful Bryant said.
Vassar and her husband had planned to make a permanent home in Charlottesville. But after the Lane incident, they decided they could not stay. She had long suppressed her memories of that tumultuous time. But this weekend will represent a kind of homecoming.
“I’ve had a lot of honors in my career,” said Vassar, who now lives in Florida. “This one is the most important.”
“It’s a cleansing that’s taking place here, it’s a healing,” Johnson said of the reunion. On Saturday, “I don’t think there’s going to be a dry eye in the place.”