Former Strasburg resident to speak on segregation Saturday

By Josette Keelor

James “Jim” Nickens used to travel 18 miles to go to school in Winchester, and he wasn’t the only one. He and all other black students from Strasburg and Woodstock took the same school bus to and from Douglas High School on Kent Street each day.

It’s been more than 60 years since then, but Nickens, 75, who now lives in Frederick County, is proof those times have not faded from the memories of area residents.

At 2 p.m. Saturday at the Handley Library in Winchester, Nickens will speak to the community for the first time about his experiences in Virginia’s segregated schools and in Washington.

Accompanying him Saturday will be his wife Gwendolyn Tolliver Nickens, previously of Woodstock, who he said was the first African-American to attend Central High School.

Though Nickens has lived an exciting life and witnessed numerous changes in American history, he said he’s only ever spoken about it publicly at John Mann United Methodist Church.

“This will be my first time to do so, [for] Black History Month,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m sort of used to it after 27 years on Capitol Hill. So I’m ready.”

After graduating from Douglas in 1956, he worked at a Chevrolet dealership until 1960 when he was drafted into the Army. He traveled to Fort Jackson, S.C., for basic training and then to Germany, where he stayed for more than 3 ½ years. He was there when President John F. Kennedy spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

After returning to the States, Nickens worked on Capitol Hill, first in the Office of the Doorkeeper of the House of Representatives for about eight months and then as a House whip counter for House Majority Leader Thomas Hale Boggs Sr.

After Boggs’ airplane disappeared over Alaska in 1972 and he was declared dead, his wife Lindy Boggs succeeded him, and Nickens worked with her until he retired in 1987.

Nickens also will bring photos to Saturday’s presentation, which he said will give an idea of what life was like in the valley during segregation.

The free presentation at 2 p.m. Saturday at Handley Library, 100 W. Piccadilly St., Winchester, is sponsored by the Friends of Handley Regional Library. For more information, call 540-662-9041 or visit