Protest march against the segregation of U.S. schools.
In this season of Lent, we are reflecting on the 150-year legacy of United Methodist Women. Each of our Lenten reflections is part of our ongoing legacy of putting faith, hope and love into action.
Black History Month is a part of American history that was purposely omitted from our school history books and lessons. We are obligated to right history’s wrongs by sharing the stories of African-American survivors, heroes and white allies. Below is Dorothy Ravenhorst’s memory of integration in Virginia and her conference’s decision on the Charter for Racial Justice during the years after Brown vs. Board of Education. We can learn from members like Mrs. Ravenhorst how to emulate ally behavior and responsibilities for present day social justice issues.
During the time that the Charter for Racial Justice was being created, our very own Women's Society of Christian Service (WSCS) members in Virginia were divided about whether or not "separate but equal" schools were really equal; about whether or not blacks deserved the same rights as whites or whether schools should be integrated. In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court had cases that challenged racial segregation in public schools. There were five cases in total. The Supreme Court consolidated the cases under one — Oliver Brown et al vs. the Board of Education. When the justices ruled in favor of desegregating our nation’s public schools, many in Virginia decided to take the matter into their own hands.
In 1954 U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd promoted the “Southern Manifesto.” He was able to get more than one hundred southern congressmen to sign. And on February 25, 1956, Virginia adopted a group of laws called Massive Resistance. Its intent was to prevent the integration of public schools. So, white families who didn’t want their children to go to school with black children were given grants to go to private schools. Many public schools closed, leaving black children without a place to go for education. This went on for several years, and nearly a generation of black children went without proper primary and secondary education.
The Charter for Racial Justice
It was during this turbulent time in May 1965 that our conference president, Margaret (Peg) Tyrrell decided to bring the Charter for Racial Justice forward to our Virginia annual meeting. She took a great risk trying to get it adopted at this time when so many were divided about segregation and integrated schools in Virginia.
Although I learned later that the conference officers had previously adopted the charter, I believe the general membership did not have an inkling beforehand that there was such a thing as the Charter for Racial Justice — much less that it would be presented for vote. Understanding this, Peg Tyrrell, being not only courageous but smart, wanted to present the Charter herself. Knowing that the presiding officer could not speak for or against an issue on the floor, Peg stepped down, handing her duties to the vice president in order to present the charter herself and argue for its passage.
There were over 1,300 present at the meeting, including guests and visitors, but only 439 voting delegates. Peg made a persuasive and passionate presentation using her best theology (as well as her dramatic skills!) and the vice president was able to handle the hub-bub that followed as members asked what it would mean to their family, their schools, their churches. After much discussion, the vote was taken and it carried by more than two-thirds.
As a white woman with three children in public schools and two in college at the time, I remember being so proud to be a member of the WSCS that had made such a bold step toward racial justice despite resistance. And I was so proud of our conference president Peg Tyrrell who led us on the right side of history. After that, I felt I could stand on Peg’s shoulders and fight for what I believed in.
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