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 Roanoke  school  integration

The Roanoke Times Archives
Rev. R.R. Wilkinson's wife Mrs. Euphesenia Wilkinson bravely walks her two daughters Nadine (left) and Cassandra (right) to an all white Melrose Elementary School for the first time making history on September 7th, 1960 in Roanoke, Virginia.
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Nadine Wilkinson Johnson (left) Cassandra Wilkinson Lighty (right) with their mother, the former Mrs. Euphesenia Wilkinson who years later went by Euphesenia Massey (1932-2018), during an interview with the Roanoke Times in 2011 on their experience with integrating Melrose Elementary School for the first time in Roanoke.


In May 1960, the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson directed the Roanoke NAACP to file applications for 30 to 40 African American students for admission into all white public schools for the fall term in Roanoke, Virginia. However, integrating all Roanoke schools would be a long battle in Roanoke. Six years earlier during the 1954 historic Brown vs. Board of Education case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that U.S. state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. Despite this ruling many southern states including Virginia did not follow the Supreme Court rulings. Most schools remained segregated throughout the south and Roanoke, Virginia was no exception. Senator Harry F. Byrd who was a former Governor of Virginia, undertook "Massive Resistance" to desegregation. One tactic against desegregating schools was the creation of a "Pupil Placement Board" which oversaw student placement. Six years later in Roanoke, Virginia the NAACP and Rev. R.R. Wilkinson found themselves fighting against heavy opposition from both local and state government to integrate Roanoke schools. The Governor of Virginia J. Lindsay Almond believed in segregation and was highly against integrating schools in Virginia. So, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson sought out a Civil Rights attorney who would be the NAACP's enforcer in court and their shield against segregation in Roanoke. That attorney name was Reuben E. Lawson.

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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times 


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News reporters interview NAACP attorney Reuben E. Lawson (1920 - 1963) after filing Western Virginia's first desegregation lawsuit in Roanoke, Virginia Federal District Court in 1959.
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NAACP Chief Counselor Oliver W. Hill with NAACP attorney Reuben Lawson escorting Black students to Roanoke Western District Court that held a hearing regarding school integration in Floyd County in September 1959. 

Reuben Lawson was a fierce NAACP attorney who challenged segregation laws during the late 1950's and early 1960's. He is known for filing Southwest Virginia's first desegregation lawsuit in Roanoke's Federal District court. In the summer of 1959, there were 13 African American students that were seeking attendance in two Floyd County all white schools. For 4 months, Rueben Lawson battled a contentious Floyd County school board in Roanoke Federal District Court. His fight finally paid off when a federal judge ruled that Floyd County High and Check Elementary schools must integrate by January 25th, 1960. After the pivotal success of the Floyd County desegregation lawsuit, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson teamed up with attorney Reuben Lawson to discuss plans to file desegregation lawsuits in Roanoke. Together, the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and Reuben Lawson would be a force to be reckoned with in the fight to integrate Roanoke. Once again, Rueben Lawson fought in Roanoke District court for African American students to attend white only schools in Roanoke, Virginia. At first, the Federal District court denied the lawsuit on technical grounds, because the application for transfer was not filed at least 60 days before the new school year. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson suspected that the Federal District court decision to deny their lawsuit on technical grounds was just another excuse not to desegregate Roanoke schools, so the Plaintiffs appealed. In August 1960, the Federal District judge accepted the argument of Reuben Lawson and others, that when there is discrimination in initial school placement, relief cannot be denied based on the 60-day rule. The Roanoke NAACP finally won their court battle against school segregation. The Federal District judge ordered all white Melrose Elementary, West End Elementary and Monroe Junior High schools to begin integration by September 7th, 1960. NAACP Attorney Rueben Lawson successfully filed lawsuits for integrating public schools in six counties of Virginia which includes Floyd County, Pulaski County, Grayson County, Lynchburg City County, Roanoke County, and Roanoke City County schools.

President of Roanoke NAACP Rev. R.R. Wilkinson (left) next to NAACP attorney Reuben Lawson (right). Rev. R.R. Wilkinson called Reuben Lawson "His shield against segregation."


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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times 
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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times 
Cecelia Long (far left) and Eula Poindexter (right) were the first two black pupils to integrate Monroe Junior High School on September 7th, 1960 in Roanoke, Virginia.

On September 7th, 1960 school integration in Roanoke, Virginia began. Only nine children from four families were accepted by the State Pupil Placement Board: Rosiland, Milton and Cecelia Long; Eula and Darlene Poindexter; Charles and Judith James; and Nadine and Cassandra Wilkinson. Cecelia Long and Eula Poindexter were the first two black pupils to integrate Monroe Junior High School in Roanoke. A crowd surrounded the Poindexter's station wagon about a block from the school. Eggs and tomatoes splattered the car.



Cecelia Long said her ears were filled the first days, weeks and months at Monroe Junior High School with unwelcome murmurs and derogatory comments. Her parents received phone calls from school parents telling them to "get your n----- child out of that school." Cecelia Long said she and other black students were told by the NAACP not to respond, no matter what was said to them. And teachers could not do anything to stop it, she said. However, there were no incidents at Melrose and West End Elementary schools. Charles, and Judith James integrated all white West End Elementary School with no problems.


Rev. R.R. Wilkinson daughters Cassandra (8 years old), and Nadine (6 years old) were the two first black students to integrate all white Melrose Elementary School in Roanoke. While their father was out of town on NAACP business, his wife Mrs. Euphesenia Wilkinson bravely escorted her two daughters to school surrounded by reporters and cameras. However, to their mother Mrs. Wilkinson's surprise, things were peaceful at the elementary school. The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson would always tell his daughters that they were just as good as white students and to be strong.
Courtesy of The Roanoke Times 
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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times
Nadine Wilkinson (left) and Cassandra Wilkinson (right) were two of the first black students to integrate the all white Melrose Elementary School in Roanoke, Virginia on September 7th, 1960.
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The Times-World Archives
Melrose Elementary School Principal Charles Radford escorts Nadine and Cassandra Wilkinson in the school building on September 7th, 1960.
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Cassandra Wilkinson with her 6th grade class (far right second row) 
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Nadine Wilkinson with her 5th grade class (far right standing)
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Integrated classrooms at Melrose Elementary and Monroe Junior High Schools in 1960 -1961.

By the end of the first school year in 1961 the former all white Melrose Elementary School had 273 Black students in attendance along with 260 white students. Monroe Junior High School now had 125 black students in attendance. In the second year of integration in Roanoke, during the 1961-62 school year, 29 more black students attended formerly all-white schools. 


In June 1963, a federal court judge in Roanoke approved a five-year integration plan drafted by the city's school board that called for grades four and eight to be desegregated in 1964-65, grades five and nine in 1965-66, grades six and 10 in 1966-67 and grades 11 and 12 in 1967-68.  Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and the Roanoke NAACP disapproved of this plan. They regarded the five-year plan as nothing more than a stalemate to desegregate all Roanoke schools. 

Courtesy of The Roanoke Times


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Lucy Addison High School was Roanoke’s all black high school from 1952 to 1970. Addison stood as one of the last segregated schools in the Roanoke Valley, however in 1970 problems with busing and funding arose. So the newly built high school was proposed by members of the Roanoke Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) and approve by Roanoke School Board to close and become a vocational school. An uproar was seen in July of 1970 when 700 people of Roanoke’s Community met at Central Baptist Church to detest the plan to close the school and alter its purpose. The Roanoke Board of Education plan was overruled by Judge Ted Dalton of the U.S. District Court, as he decided that if the school were to close it would overpopulate the remaining high schools and use funds unnecessarily. Rather than close Lucy Addison, it was finally integrated in 1970. Lucy Addison High School then operated until 1973 when it was closed and turned into a junior high school.

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Rev. R.R. Wilkinson speaks to protesters as he advocates against closing Addison High in 1970.


On September 7th, 1960, when only nine students were admitted, 28 of the families that were denied filed suit against Roanoke City School Board for injunction against the continued operation of segregated schools in Roanoke. This resulted in the Green vs. School Board of City of Roanoke Virginia (1970). From the fall of 1960 to 1971, some Black students were attending all-White schools but there were still other schools that were operating under all Black and all White schools which was not allowed after the Brown decision. Roanoke City schools were divided into 6 sections. White students would attend whatever school was the closest to them, Black students mostly attended schools in section 2. The Green case also ruled that this went against the fourteenth Amendment because for a Black student to be able to transfer schools they would have to go through an interview process while White students did not. It was not until July 21st of 1971, that Roanoke City schools finally became fully desegregated. It had taken 11 years.

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