VCU historian focuses on segregation
In 1963, Dr. Betty Brown Bibbins was the first African American student to attend her local junior high school in Portsmouth, Virginia.
On her first day of school, Bibbins and her parents were met by an angry crowd, a scene that persisted throughout the school year. The police escorted Betty to her classroom, and when she entered, her entire class moved to the other side of the room.
“And that’s how it was for that whole year,” Bibbins recalled in a video interview with the group Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE). “I was the only person with two to three chairs around me in all directions not being filled by another human being.”
African Americans were barred from Virginia’s public schools starting in 1831. In 1870, the state formally created a segregated public school system that endured for more than 90 years.
Richmonder and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) history professor Dr. Brian J. Daugherity is on a mission to document that history, warts and all.
“I’ve always been drawn to history that has a connection to the present day, and to stories in which people struggle and sacrifice for what they believe in,” he said in an interview with Fifty Plus.
At VCU, Daugherity teaches U.S. and Virginia history from the time of the Civil War through the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
This year he is working on a film with Dr. Jody Allen of William and Mary about the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Green v. New Kent County — a school desegregation decision in which the Court ordered that school districts had an affirmative duty to establish unitary school systems.
A bumpy road to equality
First, a history recap: In the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate school systems were legal as long as they were “equal.”
But in Virginia, they were far from equal. White teachers’ salaries were three times that of Black teachers in 1915. Black students often received hand-me-down textbooks and supplies. Some Black schools, heated by wood stoves, were so cold in the winter that youngsters had to wear coats and gloves indoors.
In its 1954 landmark, unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional.
But Virginia officially resisted, a movement that became known as “massive resistance” to desegregation, even closing public schools entirely. Many white parents formed private “academies” to avoid sending their children to desegregated schools, while many Black students had to go without school or move to another state.
Documenting the struggle
Desegregation in the state proceeded in fits and starts.
Daugherity, one of a dozen or so historians around the U.S. who researches and writes about school desegregation, has published three books: With All Deliberate Speed: Implementing Brown v. Board of Education, edited with Charles C. Bolton (2008); Keep On Keeping On: The NAACP and the Implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia (2016); and A Little Child Shall Lead Them: A Documentary Account of the Struggle for School Desegregation in Prince Edward County, Virginia (2019).
In August, he received an award from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture for his article, “A New Era in Building: African American Educational Activism in Goochland County, Virginia, 1911-32,” co-authored with Alyce Miller.
In addition to teaching and conducting research, Daugherity co-chairs Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) with Washington area consultant Ann Jimerson. Founded in 2008, DOVE is a collaboration between universities, scholars, libraries, people and groups dedicated to ensuring that this history is understood and preserved.
DOVE researchers find, preserve and catalog records that document the desegregation struggle in public and private schools from grades K-12, as well as in institutions of higher education, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s.
They comb through old newspapers, school records, court documents, correspondence, reports, photographs, personal papers, diaries, records from groups for and against integration, scrapbooks and yearbooks. Many documents are housed at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. George Mason University in Fairfax manages a resource guide for many records scattered around the state.
DOVE especially seeks first-person accounts from people who experienced desegregation, like Bibbins, so they can record the failures, successes and turbulence of this era. The people who lived the history can best tell the history, the group believes, and much of this history is unrecorded. So far, in 10 years, they have recorded about 120 oral histories.
Led by Daugherity, DOVE also brings teachers of grades six to 12 from all over the country to VCU for week-long summer workshops. There they learn that some determined Virginia civil rights lawyers in the 1930s advanced several school desegregation cases, while Virginia officials passed anti-integration laws and led the massive resistance movement.
Carmen Foster was a Black student during Richmond’s first desegregation wave in 1963. “I’m really enthused about the work Brian is doing. I applaud him for bringing these stories to light,” she said. “He has a real passion for this work.”
Foster is involved with DOVE, and also collects stories of teachers involved in the civil rights movement for a University of Virginia project called Teachers in the Movement.
When Daugherity was eight years old, his family moved to Chesterfield County, where his school was in the early stages of desegregation.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in history at the College of William and Mary and a master’s at the University of Montana, he was drawn to the Mississippi Teacher Corps, a program that placed untrained teachers in that state’s public schools.
In the Mississippi Delta, as in Virginia, people had created white-only private academies. Daugherity taught history in Sunflower County public high schools that were 90% Black.
He then taught at Richard Bland College in Prince George, got a Ph.D. in history at William and Mary, and in 2004 landed at VCU.
In addition to his research on school desegregation, Daugherity is studying the history of Virginia’s state parks, a pursuit that combines his professional and recreational interests. With his wife, Stephanie O’Dell, who teaches design and graphics at Virginia State University, he enjoys the outdoors, especially hiking and international travel.
His students keep him inspired, Daugherity said.
“I find students today curious about this history but not that familiar with the story — until we dive into it in depth in the classroom,” he said.
To learn more about DOVE, visit dove.gmu.edu. To tell your personal story about desegregation, contact email@example.com.