On the morning of September 9, 1948, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson unleashed the most potent weapon of all in their struggle against racial oppression and apartheid. The children. Twenty-nine of them, outfitted in their Sunday-school best, gathered outside the Gloucester Training School, a rickety outpost of second-class education situated a crow’s cry from the rich marshland and misty riverbanks that edged the secluded Tidewater Virginia county. Already that morning the two civil rights attorneys and a handful of black educators had toured school facilities. The visit confirmed what they instinctively knew to be true: local officials had failed to comply with a federal judge’s groundbreaking order, issued less than two months earlier, to bring training-school standards up to par with those for local white schools in time for opening day.
The cluster of ramshackle buildings boasted a splash of fresh paint here, a cut of new linoleum there. But pot-bellied coal stoves still substituted for a central heating plant, and worn exhaust pipes exposed second-floor classrooms as a potential firetrap. A new combination drinking fountain and wash basin had replaced an outdoor pump (often broken) as the primary source of drinking water, but tin buckets nearby signaled that students would still have to haul water to several buildings. Long wooden tables serving as desks hinted at nineteenth-century schooling. Rotting outdoor cubicles passed as lavatories. And supplies for science classes amounted to a few test tubes, several bottles of acid, and—consistent with a school mission focused more on vocational training than on academics—a bottle of auto cleaner and polish.
The hodgepodge came nowhere near to passing the equality test ordered by C. Sterling Hutcheson, a federal judge serving eastern Virginia. The time had come for Hill and Robinson to raise the stakes. First, they planned a brazen reminder that real children were being cheated by shoddy schools. Second, they intended to press in court to see just how far Hutcheson would go to hold school officials to account. Already the judge had surpassed expectations. Months earlier, some two dozen brave Gloucester County parents and guardians had filed suit with support from the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the all-black Virginia Teachers Association. Their lawsuit demanded that black children receive an education on par with that of their white peers. Surprisingly, given Hutcheson’s conservative political tilt and his roots in Virginia’s Southside, a tobacco and peanut region with demographic and cultural kinship to the Deep South, the judge had
Top: Student drawing water from well at Gloucester County Training School; Middle: boys toilet at Bena Hayes School; Bottom: unsanitary drinking cups at Bethel School; all in Gloucester County, Virginia, about 1946-47. (Ashley v. School Board of Gloucester County, National Archives at Philadelphia)
sided with the plaintiffs in the Gloucester case and three others. To the even greater dismay of many whites, he had done so with marked impatience. His late July order set an almost impossible deadline. Renovations in Gloucester were to be ready by the first day of school in September. Otherwise, school officials risked being held in contempt.
Was Hutcheson prepared to carry through on that threat? No one knew. The two attorneys, little known outside Virginia in 1948 but destined to emerge as giants in the fight to eliminate Jim Crow segregation in America, were determined to find out.