Green v. New Kent: Community honors landmark 1968 integration case

Yearbook photos show students who integrated New Kent schools. (Source: NBC12)
Yearbook photos show students who integrated New Kent schools. (Source: NBC12)
Published: May. 3, 2018 at 10:15 PM EDT|Updated: May. 7, 2018 at 10:37 PM EDT
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NEW KENT, VA (WWBT) - Inside of the old New Kent Courthouse, you'll walk into a gallery of history, finding headlines that describe a movement that helped shape education in the Commonwealth.

"Milestones are a time for reflection," Herb Jones, co-chair of the Green v. New Kent Anniversary Steering Committee, said. "We need to look at where we were 50 years ago, where we are now and most importantly where we are going."

It has been 50 years since a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Green v. New Kent County, which desegregated New Kent County schools, setting a precedent for other school systems throughout the country.

May is dedicated to keeping the stories and the history alive.

"The children need to know the struggles that we went through to get them to where they are today," Sylvia Hathaway said.

Hathaway was among the first group of black students to leave George W. Watkins school to attend the all-white New Kent High School under the Freedom of Choice plan. Freedom of Choice was enacted by the New Kent School board following a decade of resistance in Virginia after the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.

Freedom of Choice was questioned by many, and not seen as a way to give all children a fair and quality education. I was something Dr. Calvin Green and others felt was only perpetuating segregation and racism.

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

Dr. Green and other plaintiffs, including Hathaway's parents, filed suit in March 1965 in the name of equality.

From 1965 to 1968, Hathaway and other black students went to school facing racism and daily ridicule from both students and teachers.

"I had to cover her back, and she had to cover mine because you never knew what was coming," Larry Woodson said. "We would ride the bus, and freedom riders, 10 minutes before the bus came, came through and threw Molotov cocktails at us. So we had to run and dive on the ground. All that other unnecessary things that a ninth-grader shouldn't have to go through."

Woodson and so many others just kept pushing, excelling in academics, sports and the arts. He says this anniversary year, and efforts to remember what so many had to endure, is "a long time coming."

"For me, it's been bittersweet," Woodson said. "It was rough, but the sweet part of it for me, it taught me a lesson on how to deal with the negative."

On May 27, 1968, the Supreme Court rejected Freedom of Choice and made integration mandatory. New Kent was given one year to comply, and the schools were integrated by 1970.

"I wanted everybody to have the same things," Hathaway said. "All we had was baseball. They had it all. Why couldn't we have it also? That, along with faith, helped me endure the situation."

Now, 50 years later, a committee of 12 people has spent more than a year planning a month of events to keep the stories alive.

There will be events every week leading up to the May 27 anniversary.

"This is an opportunity for us to put on the map the significance of the decision and how it changed our lives, and the visionary thinking of Dr. Green," Burrell Pollard Jr., who was in 6th grade during Freedom of Choice, said. "Knowing the value and impact of education, he was doing that basically because of how it affected his life. The doors that were shut on him, he didn't want that for future people, his children and all the children in New Kent."

You can find the full list of events below:

  • May 5, 2 to 4 p.m., Watkins Elementary School Auditorium - Introduction to the Green Case will feature a panel of former students, parents, and teachers who lived through the event and who will discuss their school experiences following the Green case. Dr. Jody Allen, of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, and Dr. Brian Daugherity, Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond will moderate the discussion. Dylan Pritchett will tell the story of the Green case and the New Kent StageHands will perform music of the 1960s at a special Kids Corner Program
  • May 15, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., History of Watkins School - A school tour will feature history presentations by students and a pictorial exhibit. The program covers the history of the Watkins Elementary School from its beginning as New Kent Training School (from 1930 - 1949), George W. Watkins High School (1950 - 1969), and now Watkins Elementary School (1970 - present).
  • May 20, 3 to 5 p.m., New Kent High School Auditorium - The renowned One Voice Chorus Ensemble of Richmond will present a musical celebration program. Guest Speaker will be Dr. Corey D. Walker, Vice-president, Dean, and Professor of Religion and Society at Virginia Union University.
  • May 27, 2 to 5 p.m., New Kent High School Auditorium - A panel will discuss civil rights in the 21st century and beyond, exactly 50 years from the day the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Green Decision. A short film on the Green decision will be followed by the panel discussion moderated by Dr. Jody Allen of the College of William and Mary. Panel members include Dr. Michael Meltsner, one of the original lawyers on the Green case, attorney, and Professor at Northeastern University; Dr. Wilmer Leon, host of "Inside the Issues" on SirusXM Channel 126; Dr. Linneal Henderson, Professor at the University of Baltimore and at the College of William and Mary; and Ms. Michaele Turnage Young, Senior Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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