SOON AFTER THE CIVIL WAR ended, all children in the state of Virginia, black and white, were guaranteed an education under the provisions of Virginia's new state constitution.
But until the mid-1950s, counties across the state, including Stafford County, operated "separate, but equal" systems for black and white children, as allowed by the Supreme Court in 1896.
Frank White, 62, attended black schools in the area in the years just before the integration of the Stafford school system. He recalls mile-long walks to the bus stop, long rides over winding dirt roads, second-hand books and fewer opportunities in academics and athletics for black students in the county. He says the schools were separate, but hardly equal.
Actually, some aspects of the educational process for blacks in Stafford had improved considerably by the time White became a student in the late 1940s.
In 1871, there were 16 schools for white students and two for blacks. There were 99 black students, just 16 percent of the black school-aged population, enrolled that year, according to "A Historical Study of Public Education in Stafford County, Virginia, from 1865 through 1965," by H. Stewart Jones.
Jones supposed that low attendance in the black schools might be attributed to "inadequate clothing, sickness due to improper nutrition and the location of the schools," among other factors. But the numbers rose quickly.
In the 1930s, school records show that the county maintained seven black schools: Concord, Brooke, Oak Grove, Little Forest, Union Branch, Shiloh and Mt. Zion.
The first black teacher was hired in 1874, but for many years, the qualifications of black teachers, as well as those of the white teachers, were limited.
Pay was below the state average for both black and white teachers . According to school board records, by the end of the 1930s, white teachers in Stafford County earned an average of $751. Black teachers earned $455. Women of both races earned less than men.
White attended the ninth and 10th grades at the Stafford Training School in the mid-1950s. The name of the school was changed during his first year there to H. H. Poole Junior High School. Poole, a black educator in Stafford from the 1930s to the 1950s, had served as the supervisor of black education in the system.
After the school system was integrated, H.H. Poole Junior High School became the Rowser Education Center, named after another long-time black educator in Stafford, Ella R. Rowser.
White attended Walker-Grant High School in Fredericksburg his junior and senior years. Stafford paid tuition to the city for the Stafford students who attended Walker-Grant in the 1940s and 1950s.
The drop-out rate was high, said White, because Stafford didn't encourage the students to stay. White recalls that many left school because they felt out of place, like "a country kid going into the city."
The long bus ride discouraged students, as well, White said. There was just one bus for the entire lower end of the county, and few paved roads, so the trip often took a couple of hours, and students usually arrived at school late.
White drove the bus to school for two years after a harrowing experience on winding River Road in the southern part of the county. White said the bus driver who normally drove the bus was partial to bringing a Coke bottle along on his afternoon run. The bottle was usually filled with something a little harder than the soft drink.
On one particular afternoon, the driver was more erratic than usual, and the students, led by White's sister, Gladys, evacuated the bus and marched over the Chatham Bridge to a filling station where they called White's father, who went right to superintendent T. Benton Gayle's house and demanded the firing of the bus driver. White, at age 16, earned $2.50 an hour driving the bus after that, a job adults were paid $5 to do.
His father, Frank White Sr., was always very involved with the school system, and served as president of the H.H. Poole PTA, said White. "It was nothing for him to be in Mr. Gayle's office trying to get something," White remembers.
The black schools were often poorly equipped. They often didn't even have heat. White remembers one day it was so cold in class that students were loaded on the bus and given a tour of Fredericksburg just to keep warm.
But the teachers were dedicated, often spending their own money to provide classroom materials, he said.
In 1954, three years before White graduated, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate, but equal, facilities were unconstitutional. It was nearly a decade later that black and white students actually attended the same schools.
Gayle was not particularly receptive to the idea of integration, White said, but "the tide was turning. It was something that had to be done."
On Sept. 1, 1960, five black teen-agers tried to walk into Stafford High School. One of the students turned away that morning was 17-year-old Gordon White, Frank's brother.
The next year, two young black girls, Cynthia Darnella Montague and her sister, enrolled in Stafford Elementary without incident, integrating the Stafford County school system for the first time.
The following year, a group of black parents got together and requested that the State Pupil Placement Board approve the transfers of their children from H.H. Poole to Stafford High School. In the fall of 1962, the entire junior and senior classes of H.H. Poole entered Stafford High School.
Stafford High School Principal John B. Durham met with the students and worked to ensure that the integration proceeded without incident.
"He was the right man at the right time," White said.
By 1964, the school system was fully integrated. The peaceful process closed the book on nearly a century of separate, but not necessarily equal, schools in Stafford County.