On Friday, Arlington County Government and Arlington Public Schools (APS) will formally dedicate the Stratford Commemorative Trail at what is now Dorothy Hamm Middle School (formerly Stratford Junior High School). The trail’s interpretive panels discuss the national, state, and local history of school desegregation and honor the four seventh-grade students who desegregated Stratford on Feb. 2, 1959 (Gloria Thompson, Ronald Deskins, Lance Newman, and Michael Jones), as well as local activist Dorothy M. Bigelow Hamm.
“The individuals who fought for the racial integration of public facilities—and the four students who made desegregation a reality at Stratford—are heroes,” said County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti. “Their courage and commitment to justice is a model for us all. With this new trail, we honor their legacy in the context of our County’s ongoing efforts to uproot systemic racism and advance equity.”
“As we celebrate the history of the four students who so fearlessly desegregated Stratford Junior High School 62 years ago in pursuit of a quality education, we must remember how even today, it is important that we take every opportunity possible to provide all students a quality, equitable education without regard to their race or ethnic background,” said Dr. Francisco Durán, APS Superintendent. “These four students were exceptionally resilient and tenacious, and serve as an exemplar for our community, and communities across the country, as we continue to advocate for equity in education.”
“Our mission at Dorothy Hamm is to ensure that our school community, and the community at large, know about, honor, and continue the work to create an inclusive and equitable education experience for all. We are challenged by this history to take action,” said Ellen Smith, Principal of Dorothy Hamm Middle School.
Since the 2016 local historic district designation of the Stratford School, APS and Arlington County have collaborated on an interpretive project to raise awareness about the historic and cultural significance of the 1959 desegregation event. The main component is the commemorative trail, sited to recall the location of the original path the students took that morning to enter the school.
The trail consists of four free-standing interpretive panels, plus a wall-mounted panel, outside of Dorothy Hamm Middle School. The sides of the four panels facing Old Dominion Drive feature portraits of Thompson, Deskins, Newman, and Jones derived from a historic Associated Press photo (right) of the students on Feb. 2, 1959. The reverse sides highlight a narrative that covers the national, state, and local histories both leading up to and resulting in the successful desegregation event. The narrative ends with present-day struggles for social justice.
The wall-mounted panel honors Dorothy M. Bigelow Hamm, namesake of the current school. Hamm and her husband listed their eldest son as a plaintiff in a legal case that challenged the refusal of the Arlington School Board and the state of Virginia to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
The suit to which Hamm’s son was a party ultimately led to the desegregation of Stratford Junior High School. When Thompson, Deskins, Newman, and Jones entered and enrolled there, they effected the beginning of the end of public school segregation in Virginia and the failure of the Commonwealth’s policy of “massive resistance” to integration. Desegregation occurred in Norfolk Public Schools a few minutes later, on the same date, Feb. 2, 1959.
Although the events commemorated by the new trail marked a milestone for civil rights in Virginia, it would be more than a decade before all school systems in the state integrated—and until Arlington adopted a policy on integration that met the legal standards of Brown.
Six decades later, the County and APS continue to strive toward racial equity. These efforts include:
- The update of Arlington’s Historic Preservation Master Plan;
- Establishment and appointment of APS’s first Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer;
- Adoption of a new equity policy by the School Board;
- Establishment and appointment of the County’s first Chief Race and Equity Officer; and
- RACE (Realizing Arlington’s Commitment to Equity). This initiative advances racial equity as a Countywide priority to eliminate, reduce, and prevent disparities in our policies, procedures, practices, engagement, and interaction with and service to the community.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, in words quoted on a panel at the new trail, “Desegregation is only a first step on the road to a good society.”