Green v. New Kent: 50 years since landmark integration case

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Updated: Feb. 7, 2018 at 10:04 PM EST
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NEW KENT, VA (WWBT) - It has been 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that helped to finally integrate Virginia's schools.

Green v. New Kent is a major part of the history of desegregation, but not always talked about.

Sylvia Hathaway remembers the times well, as a teenager growing up in New Kent County, attending George W. Watkins - an all black school - with her friends and classmates. At Watkins, she excelled as an honor roll student, but her life changed in a matter of minutes in 1965.

"I left Watkins in the middle of the day and went to New Kent High School," explained Hathaway.

She was a part of the freedom of choice plan adopted by the New Kent County School board, at the end of a decade of massive resistance to desegregation, following Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1964, following the Civil Rights Act, school's federal funding was threatened if they did not voluntarily integrate. Freedom of choice was found to be an acceptable form, that many questioned and challenged.

"Black students might choose to go to the white school, but white students won't choose to go to the black school," said Hathaway.

Renowned educator Dr. Calvin Coolidge set out to prove that freedom of choice was only perpetuating segregation, filing suit in March 1965. Hathaway's father, a civil rights activist, was among the plaintiffs in Charles C. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, VA.

"He filed that suit on behalf of his youngest son [Charles] because he felt the case would be drawn out and the youngest child would benefit more," explained Hathaway.

She was among more than a dozen children of the plaintiffs in the Green case who broke the barrier and began to integrate New Kent School during freedom of choice, while their parents fought to dismantle it.

"They treated us horribly, called us names. The people tried to make it as miserable as possible," she said. "They didn't want to teach us, and they let us know they didn't want to teach us."

Hathaway says she and her friends were shunned and underestimated, but she was determined to keep going.

"I do believe if I was not raised in the church, I would not have it in my heart, much like my head to keep turning the other cheek from the abuse," said Hathaway.

She made some friends, became the first black softball player at New Kent School, her sister later became the first black female basketball player at the school.

"I was among the first graduating class of New Kent High School, only three of us made it," explained Hathaway.

The same year she graduated, May, 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Green v. New Kent, rejecting the freedom of choice plan and mandating integration. Hathaway says New Kent was given one year to comply. By 1970, the schools were integrated.

The Green Case has been called one of the most significant desegregation cases, setting a precedent for other school systems.

"Dr. Green would probably be amazed, because he was the type of person, he didn't like to draw attention. His student said that when this was going on, the whole time he was going back and forth to court, and they didn't know," said Hathaway.

Dr. Green and others fought and persevered for the future, and for equality.

"I would probably do it all over again, because I would like to think it helped someone," she said.

While there are still people left to tell the story and ensure the history doesn't die, New Kent County will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of Green v. New Kent in May, with an event each weekend of the month.

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