BRIEF HISTORY OF THE VIRGINIA STATE CONFERENCE NAACP
In 1935 the political and social system in Virginia was basically that which in South Africa is known a apartheid – a word best understood by the pronunciation: a-part-hate.
Racial discrimination mandated by law, as rooted in the soil of colonial Virginia; and chattel slavery, like a creeping vine, permeated the social fabric for more than two centuries. The vine was consumed in the fires of the Civil War and to prevent its return, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were added to the Constitution. The roots, however, did not die. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, racial discrimination mandated by state law reappeared and insidiously grew, again dominating the social fabric.
The Supreme Court in 1896 had held that the Constitution of the United States was not offended by a Louisiana statute which required railway companies to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races. Into the Constitution of Virginia 1902, it was written “White and colored children shall not be taught in the same schools.” And that document denied the right to vote to all who, six months in advance of an election, had failed to pay the poll tax for each of the three preceding years; and it permitted to be registered to vote only those whom the registrar might enroll as a matter of course and those who, in his presence and without aid, suggestion, or memorandum, had written application to registrar, stating therein his name, age, date and place of birth, residence and occupation at the time and for two years next preceding, and whether he has previously voted, and, if so, the state, county and precinct in which he voted last”
“Separate” became demeaning reality, “equal” was always a cruel hoax. Discrimination against “nigras” in every aspect of the political, economic and social structures was the way things were from birth to burial. There was but scant participation by Blacks in the electoral process. Except as a janitor or as a home or farm demonstration agent or as an official or employee in a “colored” school or in some other separate but unequal facility for Negroes, no Black person was employed by state or government They were not even included intermittently, for jury service.
These were facts of life which impelled the organization of the Virginia State Conference of Branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The founders of the organization were: Sadie Wyche, Suffolk; Atty. Oliver W. Hill, Richmond; Jessie M. Tinsley, Richmond; Jewel S. Carrington, Halifax; Zenobia Gilpin, Richmond; J. Byron Hopkins Richmond; Dr. Leon Ransome, National Office and Mrs. Spencer of Roanoke. The first organizing meeting was held in Roanoke, Virginia in 1935.
Presidents of the Conference have been: J. M. Tinsley, 1935-1954; E. B. Henderson, 1955-1956′ Philip Y. Wyatt, 2957-1960; Robert D. Robertson, 1961-1962; L. Francis Griffin, 1963-1967′ Charles Brown, 19681970; Melford Walker, 1971-1974; Isaac Ridley, 1975-1978′ Roger Ford, 1979-1980; James Hicks, 19811982; James E. Ghee, 1983-1985; Charles Mangum 1986-1988; Jack W. Gravely, 1988-1991; Erenest Miller, 1991-1995; Paul C. Gillis, 1995-1997; Emmitt Carlton, 1997-1999; Rovenia Vaughan, 1999-2003 and Linda Thomas was elected 2003.
W. Lester Banks served as Executive Secretary from 1947 to 1977; Jack Gravely served as Executive Director from 1977 to 1984; W. Paul Matthews from 1984 to 1986; Linda Byrd Harden from 1987 to 1998 and King Salim Khalfani served from 1998 to 2014. Following a six-year period without a full-time Executive Director, Da’Quan Marcell Love was unanimously chosen to lead the Virginia State Conference beginning January 1, 2021.
In its formative years, the Conference had available the legal services of J. Byron Hopkins, jr., Wendell Walker and J. Thomas Hewing, Jr. The subsequently organized Legal Staff has included Oliver W. Hill, Martin A. Martin, Samuel W. Tucker, Edwin C. Brown, Sr., Spotswood W. Robinson, III, Robert H Cooley, Jr., Roland Ealey, Philip S. Walker, Rueben E. Lawson, W. Hale Thompson, Victor Ashe,
W. Hale Thompson, Victor Ashe, J. Hugo Madison, James A. Overton, Jerry L. Williams, Otto L. Tucker, Ruth Harvey, Henry L. Marsh, III, John W. Scott, Jr., James E. Ghee, Dennis Montgomery, James Hume, Stephanie Valentine, S. Delacy Stith, Gwendolyn Jones Jackson and presently, Richard Patrick..
The first major target of the Conference, acting jointly with the Virginia Teachers Association, was the difference between the salaries paid to white and to Negro public school teachers. On June 18, 1940, the United States Court of Appeals held such discrimination was forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment and directed the United States District Court to fashion an appropriate remedy.
At the Twelfth Annual Convention, in 1947, the Conference announced the purpose eliminating segregation from the public schools by requiring school boards to face the expense of equalizing schools for Negro Children with schools for white children. In 1948, the United States District Court ordered school boards of Chesterfield, King George and Gloucester counties to equalize school facilities. In 1949, the United States Courts of Appeals held invalid the practice of requiring Negro high school pupils living in Pulaski County to attend Christiansburg Institute in Montgomery County although three high schools in Pulaski County were operated for white pupils. And in 1950, the United States Court of Appeals found the high school offerings for Negro pupils in Arlington County to be far short of those for white and directed the district court to require correction. “We wrote the meaning of equality under the Constitution into the case reports but failed to get into the public schools,” hence, the decision to attack segregation head-on.
Disgusted with the excuse of “tar paper shacks” for a high school, black pupils in Prince Edward County led by Barbara Johns refused to attend classes until they had talked with an NAACP lawyer. Thus began the case of Dorothy Davis and others v s. County School Board of Prince Edward which, with cases from Kansas, South Carolina, and Delaware, impelled the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954 to hold in Brown vs. Board of Education, that “In the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place.”
Meanwhile, other happenings were chipping away at “apartheid” in Virginia. On July 16, 1944, an interstate passenger classified as a Negro was arrested in Middlesex County for refusing to move to the back of the bus. On June 3, 1946, the Supreme Court of the United State found such racial segregation to be a constitutionally intolerable burden on interstate commerce. After more than 200 related cases had been litigated with support of the Conference between 1944 and 1955, racial segregation in public transportation ceased to occur.
A purpose of the NAACP, stated in its 1911 Certificate of Incorporation, is to secure for colored citizens “impartial suffrage.” The 25th anniversary souvenir program listed six special workers in voter- registration who had organized voter registration programs in south side black-belt counties. Subsequently the Conference employed John M. Brooks and later, Howard Wilkerson and Michael Brown who conducted a successful voter registration – Get Out the Voter Program for over six years. Alan Barnett continued this effort as Coordinator of Branch and Field Activities for two years. Salim Khalfani came on board in November 1990 as the Coordinator of Branch and Field Activities. His major duties included assisting the local branches with developing redistricting plans and coordinating voter registration /voter education programs. Mr. Khalfani served as lobbyist at the General Assembly for the State Conference and monitored Congressional legislation. He also assisted the Executive Secretary and the local branches with discrimination complaints and allegations of police brutality. Mrs. Willie Dell, former member of Richmond City Council came on board in 2000, as a volunteer, to coordinate our GOTV/Voter Registration efforts.
A Conference tool for teaching black citizens how to register was a picture of two hands, each finger designating one item the citizens should remember when writing his application in the presence of the registrar. By taking into court the wrongful denials of registration, the Conference changed practices of wrongful refusal of registration. On the 25th of September 1964, in a Conference sponsored by action styled Wilkes .and others vs. Woodruff and others, the United State District Court ended the blank paper registration procedure by requiring registrars in the south side to accept a properly filled out form which elicited the necessary answers, as was being done in other Virginia localities.
Following the decision of the Supreme Court that separate but equal has no place in the field of public education, the State of Virginia resolved to maintain racial segregation in all of the public schools and to close any school which federal courts might require to admit pupils of both races. On the other hand, the Conference had determined that racial segregation would be discontinued in every public school in the Commonwealth. Before this conflict was resolved, the Conference had filed suits against the schools boards of 37 counties and 15 cities or towns. In some cases, e.g. Prince Edward Co. and Warren Co., this was done with cooperation of the general counsel for the Association. Prosecution of most cases was the joint effort of the Conference and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
Realizing that it would face a desegregation requirement in the 1959-60 school session, Prince Edward County abandoned all public schools and kept them closed until the 1964-65 session. During these five years, the Conference was unrelentingly importuning the federal courts and the state courts to require the operation of public schools. On May 25, 2964, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with the District Court that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not permit closing schools in Prince Edward County while public schools were being maintained in all other school districts in Virginia.
As part of “massive resistance”, Virginia had established a tuition grant program which diverted public funds to private segregated academies for white children. The Conference opposed the establishment of such academies for black children and, hence, none were created; not even Prince Edward County, which for five years was without public schools. In 1969, the federal court enjoined such use of public funds.
In 1968, in the suit against the New Kent County School Board, the Supreme Court held unconstitutional the “Freedom of Choice” plans which school boards had used to require black children on an individual basis or other parents for them, to apply for enrollment in a specified school attended by white children. The court plainly said that duty of school board was to come forward with a plan that promises realistically to work and promises realistically to work NOW. Nevertheless, Conference sponsored school desegregation cases continued on active court dockets until 1975. The potential for additional court challenges to the resegregation of public schools in Virginia is an issue we will have to address in the very near future. Disparity in education relates to economic conditions, as well as resegregation of our school system according to the race of our students and employees. In order to enhance the quality of education in the Commonwealth, we must make crucial decision regarding the necessary corrective steps we must take.
As another part of “massive resistance,” The General Assembly of Virginia sought to avoid school desegregation by harassing individual NAACP members, by annoying and frightening plaintiffs in school desegregation litigation, by making it criminally offensive for the conference to solicit plaintiffs and to sponsor litigation in which it had no pecuniary interest, and by threatening the lawyer disbarment. The Conference successfully resisted in court all efforts of the Commonwealth to obtain lists of NAACP members and contributors. As when two legislative committees met at varying localities to ascertain how plaintiffs for school desegregation cases were obtained, members of the Conference legal staff were present to counsel the witnesses. Ultimately, the anti-NAACP status were invalidated by the courts; and the legislative committees ceased to function.
The Conference sponsored defense criminal cases to demonstrate and protest against the racially discriminating operations of the justice system. In cases of seven black men from Martinsville who in 1949 were sentenced to death for rape; the Conference sponsored appeals and habeas corpus proceedings presenting the fact that never had the Commonwealth put a white man to death for rape. Opportunity to expose racial discrimination in jury selection impelled the Conference in several cases to undertake the defense of persons accused of crimes. In conjunction with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. the facilities of the Conference utilized in the defense of hordes of people arrested in 1963 in the Danville protest demonstrations and in similar, although less intensive events in Richmond, Lynchburg, Alexandria and Farmville. The refusal of Ford T. Johnson, Jr., then a student, to conform to segregated seating in a Richmond courtroom was vindicated by the nations highest court; and Jim Crow seating arrangements were relegated to history.
Several challenges to the 1981 redistricting of the General Assembly were filed in the Federal Court in Richmond. The Conference sponsored the case styled Jack W. Gravely and others vs. Dalton and others, and the National Office assigned a lawyer to assist. Exploiting the pressure of the pending litigation and the cooperation of every lawmaker whom we could enlist, the Conference negotiated the settlement which produced one hundred single member districts, from ten of which the election of black persons to the House of Delegates appeared possible. In several local situations the Conference has contended for single member districting.
Once again, the Conference directed its attention toward Legislative and Congressional redistricting. Every ten years the lines are redrawn to comply with the new census data. The Conference was instrumental in challenging the House Redistricting Plan consisting of eleven minority/majority districts. The Justice Department rejected this plan and required the General Assembly to draw at least twelve minority/majority districts. However, the NAACP had advocated thirteen minority/majority districts and had successfully drawn the districts and lobbied for same. The State Conference was first to indicate that thirteen African American districts in the House and five in the Senate could be drawn. Our quantitative analysis was on target, however, we did not agree that the quality and the statistical analysis of these districts ensured that a candidate of choice can be elected. The Conference will have to decide if it is willing to invest in a legal challenge to correct the inadequacies or work within the limits of reapportionment and attempt to enhance African Americans voting strength through voter education. We will continue to hold our legislators responsible for protecting the voting rights of all African Americans in the Commonwealth and in the county.
The barriers to equalize justice and equal opportunity now confronting black Virginians, although more sophisticated, are equally as oppressive and insidious as those faced by the Virginia State Conference more than 50 years ago. In 1992, we were faced with a Supreme Court that was steadily moving to the far right and stripping the country of its judicial rights, while the check and balance between the three branches of government was steadily eroding.
More than three decades after Brown, we find the gap between black and white income widening and a growing group of poor Americans being described by some as a permanent black underclass. We are now confronting a national administration committed to turning back the clock by eliminating hard fought gains in school desegregation and by opposing affirmative action, goals and timetables for correcting past discrimination in employment and by resisting desegregation in higher education.
Even though history seems to repeating itself, the youth of the Virginia State Conference Youth & College Division remains a viable and influential part of this organization. Since the early 1960’s when the youth & College Division was reactivated, young NAACPers have led the way in civil disobedience. During this period, much of the activity centered around sit-ins which were held in cities like Petersburg and Richmond. The State Youth & College Division continues to distinguish itself as one which is vocal on national, state and local issues. The Youth and College Division has thrived under the leadership of such advisors as: Helen P. Howard, Ora Lomax, Reatha Mason, Patricia Seabron, James Coleman, Wanda Moore, Drucilla Bridgeforth, Korri Garrett, Wanda Wright, Lynetta Thompson and Monique Randolph.