Going to a new school can prove challenging for any grade-school student.
For seven Spotsylvania County girls, such a move, on Aug. 29, 1963, proved much more daunting.
They were young African–Americans leaving the welcoming environment of their school and friends. Their destinations were county schools previously reserved for whites, who didn’t welcome them with open arms.
Fifty-five years later, the girls gathered as grown and successful women to recall their experiences during a tumultuous turning point in America.
The women talked to a group of about 100 on Saturday in the auditorium at John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum (the former John J. Wright School) in Spotsylvania. The forum was hosted by the center and the National Parks Service.
The parks service chief historian John Hennessy moderated the forum. He also interviewed the women for an exhibit at the center highlighting the roles they played integrating into the county’s schools.
The women recounted the uneasy switch to the new schools, remembering little instances that made lifelong impressions along with detractors and friends alike who emerged during their grade-school years.
“I was a little fearful,” said Karen Williams Woodward, recalling the day when as a third-grader she had to ride the bus and walk into a room at Robert E. Lee Elementary in front of the white strangers. But she also noted fondly that during a bathroom break that day, a white girl approached and said her mother told her she should be friendly.
Sharon Taylor McGlone had a slightly different first-day experience as a fourth-grader at Robert E. Lee. A boy unleashed a racial epithet, saying his mother told him not to sit next to her.
The teacher said she wouldn’t have that kind of talk in her room, something Taylor McGlone said helped, as it let her know the teacher had her back.
Rita Pendleton said she “was petrified” when she entered Spotsylvania High School as an eighth-grader. When she chose a seat on that first day, a white girl scooted her chair away.
“I’ll never forget that first day,” she said, adding that it made her “want to be independent and prove myself. … Failure was not an option for any of us.”
The seven women said a strong sense of family, faith and community, along with the educators at John J. Wright, prepared them for the ugliness of racist attitudes as well as the challenges of learning and living in a completely alien environment.
Isolation challenged them, the women said, as they constantly felt like outsiders.
Pendleton, who played basketball and field hockey at Spotsylvania High School, recalled a time when one team she was on didn’t eat at a Culpeper restaurant because it wouldn’t serve her.
Karen Williams Woodward remembered being blocked from the Girl Scouts.
She also recounted a cheerleading camp in which white mothers left six black girls behind at a North Carolina hotel. Another mother packed the girls into her car and brought them back.
“Certain things, you were relegated from,” Williams Woodward said.
Hennessy asked the women why they were chosen and not any boys.
Pendleton said it was believed the girls would “be more passive,” something that would help avoid conflict in the expected tension to come with integration.
While in some ways that belief may have proved true, the girls recounted several instances when they stood up against white bullies. Some things they did likely would lead to a suspension these days. But in those days, they were surviving.
In a light moment, Hennessy told the crowd he interviewed the women for the exhibit and that “they misjudged the passive part” when considering the girls for integration.
After the forum, he said the girls proved a perfect choice to integrate into the county’s schools and added that the forum showed why.
Williams Woodward explained why during the forum.
“The school system had prepared us thoroughly,” she said, echoing her friends’ sentiments. “Our parents were people who did not want to leave things as they were.”
Another challenge for the girls was figuring out who were real friends.Williams Woodward said at one point, adding that some would be friendly at school but pass you by in the street.
Carolyn Jones Hellerich is someone the women considered a true friend.
Jones Hellerich, a white student at Robert E. Lee who befriended Sharon Taylor McGlone, sat on stage with the women and recounted what she experienced.
She said her father was racist, while her mother taught her that all people were equal. She wanted to learn who the girls were.
She was impressed by the girls then and the women now.
“They are all impressive women,” she said.
At the end of the forum, Pendleton summed her thoughts on the experience.
“Our first year was not easy,” said Pendleton. “But in some way we did pave the way for others.”