Breaking barriers

Ron Deskins, 67, of Mount Jackson was one of the first four black students to attend a desegregated public school in Virginia. Rich Cooley/Daily

NEW MARKET — The first day of school can be pretty terrifying.

So just imagine how nervous 12-year-old Ron Deskins felt as he entered Stratford Junior High School on Feb. 2, 1959.

Not only was it his first day at a new school, but also he was one of four black students out of about 1,500 others at the Arlington school.

Those four — Michael Jones, Gloria Thomas, Lance Newman and Deskins — became the first black students that day to attend a desegregated public school in Virginia.

Deskins, now 67 and a circulation assistant at the Shenandoah County Library in Edinburg, recalled the details of that morning 55 years ago.

There were more than 100 police officers, wearing flak jackets and helmets, patrolling the schools, he said, parents were barred from entering the school grounds that day and all students had to be inside their classrooms when the bells rang.

“They just weren’t taking any chances and were trying to control everything they could control,” he said, “but you can see how it all made it even more tension-filled.”


Throughout that year, Deskins said he had a positive experience overall with his classmates, but there were a few students he knew to avoid.

“There was a lot of name calling from other students, but it was always the same students and there were a very few of them,” he said. “The vast majority of students had no reaction. They were pretty much indifferent.”

There are always people who resist change, he said, and those who are drawn to it.

“Some students went out of their way to be friendly, to make sure you knew where this class was, what was going on in school,” he said, “and then those few who sought to make it their business to try to make your life as miserable as possible.”


Five years earlier in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional.

As schools began to integrate around the country, Senator Harry F. Byrd led a movement of massive resistance in 1956 aimed at closing Virginia public schools that were desegregating.

In 1957, seven black students were denied admission to schools in Arlington based on criteria such as psychological preparedness, academic achievement and adaptability.

The county’s school board was under pressure from the state, Deskins said, that if they granted any of those students admission, they would be shut down.

Then in January 1959, one month before Deskins and the others would walk through the doors of Stratford, the Virginia Supreme Court and a federal court struck down massive resistance measures as unconstitutional.


Deskins grew up in a north Arlington community he said was very segregated.

“In order to go to the movies, we had to go to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “If we wanted to go to the swimming pool, we had to go to D.C. We couldn’t eat at any restaurants other than the couple black-owned restaurants.”

He also recalled the separate-but-equal water fountains and bathrooms for blacks and whites.

“Growing up, we would go and see what white water tasted like,” he said. “We would see what white bathrooms looked like. White bathrooms were kind of laid out relative to colored bathrooms, but the white water didn’t taste any different.”

The congressman for his district, Joel Broyhill, was a staunch segregationist and a signer of the Southern Manifesto opposing the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

When the decision had been made to send Deskins and the others to Stratford, Broyhill paid him a visit.

Deskins said he remembers Broyhill pulling up to his home in a big black Cadillac.

“So he came in and my parents were gracious people, and very polite and respectful,” he said. “But basically, what he did was came and brought up the subject — my father was an Arlington firefighter — he brought up the subject of his job, and my father asked him in a very respectful way to leave our house.”

“When I look back on that, I think about the courage it took,” Deskins added. “Without directly saying it, this congressman who has all this authority and power came into our house and intimated my father could lose his job if we persisted.”


Deskins said the bullies who taunted him that first year eventually found a reason to quit bothering him.

“The next year, about 22 other black kids came to school, and a couple of those guys were not quite as nice as me,” he said. “The name calling was over.”

After two more years at Stratford, he attended Washington-Lee High School, where there were fewer than 10 black students in his 786-student graduating class.

Deskins is the first person in his family to graduate from high school without dropping out.

“While creating some stress in my life,” Deskins said about his experiences, “it also created a lot more tolerance and a lot more understanding.”

Deskins moved to Shenandoah County in 1985 after serving as a firefighter in Fairfax County for over 34 years.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com