M.E. Costner Leads First Class of Black Students Following Approval By Falls Church School Board

October 6, 2005 7:17 PM0 comments

Right in the City of Falls Church, imagine cross burnings in your front yard, or having rotten fruit thrown at you as you picket in front of the State Theatre. And imagine being the one black student at George Mason High School with classmates who hate you just for the color of your skin, who want you to go back to your school and forget about equal rights.

Marian Costner experienced this 41 years ago as she became the first black student to graduate from George Mason, following its landmark integration in 1961, the opening stages of the struggle for which was documented in the first part of this series last week.

To get to a place where she could stand as a George Mason graduate, Falls Church had to go through a series of changes, shedding a mottled Virginia history of segregation, and slavery over a period of 10 years to take on the mantle of equal rights.

Last week, Part One of this exclusive Falls Church News-Press series described the events in Falls Church in the first years following the Brown Vs. the Board of Education decisions, including the efforts of F.C. School Board chair John A. Johnson. But though Johnson worked arduously starting in 1955 to integrate the schools, that champion ended up leaving the City before seeing the change he had hoped and worked for.

This second article recounts how the schools finally desegregated in 1961, and the travails of Costner and what she faced as the first African American student to attend the City’s George Mason High School.

A Changing Tide

In the years of Virginia’s “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown Vs. Board II, beginning in 1956, there was little local jurisdictions in the commonwealth could do on their own to end segregation. A “Dillon Rule” state, Virginia’s constitution prohibited local jurisdictions from doing anything not specifically permitted by the state, an anomaly that exists to this day. In 1956, the state established a “pupil placement board” to ensure that state control to maintain segregation. It held sway over all decisions about where students could attend school. Any locality that attempted to go against its decisions was threatened with the loss of state funding and more.

While integration had been stalled by the state, however, those efforts could only delay integration, not prevent it. As the commonwealth plumbed the legal depths to find a way to stop the rising tide, little by little, moves toward integration were happening around the state.

Even though the City of Falls Church was prohibited from making any direct headway to desegregate, there was an evolution happening in the City that would ultimately prove important when the opportunity to integrate finally arose again.

As stated in Part One of this series, during the majority of the 1950s, the government of the City of Falls Church was led by a group of conservative councilmen who had come to power in the election of 1951 and subsequently kept the reins on the City for nine years. Without a concerted effort from more progressive citizens, who had originally helped establish the independent city, conservatives managed to win election after election to the Council.

But in 1959, a decade after Falls Church had first seceded from Fairfax County to become an independent city under Virginia law, a group of residents formed a civic organization called the Citizens for a Better Council, later known as the Citizens for a Better City, or the CBC. It was modeled on the “Arlingtonians for a Better County” in adjacent Arlington County, maintained as a non-partisan civic association in order not to violate federal law prohibiting federal employees from being involved in partisan politics. The first president of CBC was Lou Olom, whose own children attended the Falls Church schools and whose primary focus was on the quality of those schools.

Established in early 1959 and learning as it went, the CBC set its sights on the June elections of that year, backing candidates Charles J. Hedetniemi, Everett D. Johnston and Lee M. Rhoads to contest for the three seats up for election. Composed of both Democrats and Republicans, the group championed the cause of the schools, which it felt was being under funded by the presiding administration.

Over the previous two years, the City Council had taken several actions to cut money to the schools. In 1957 it prevented a referendum on a bond for high school expansion, despite 1,200 of the City’s 10,000 residents signing a petition. The Council subsequently replaced all the School Board members who had recommended passage the referendum (School Board members were appointed by the Council back then).

The next year, the Council and the School Board voted together to take the seventh grade out of George Mason and place it in the elementary school in an effort to try to get around the need for a larger high school, over the protests of many.

In an editorial in the June 8, 1959 edition of the Washington Post, on the eve of the Falls Church City Council election, the paper laid out the two sides, one representing, as it described, “the needs of a modern community,” and comparing the other to a kind of “medieval government.” The editorial said that the schools and the City’s reputation were at stake in the 1959 election.

Even though the issue of integration remained largely out of the public discussion, it was lurking in the background. As schools all over the South fought, and increasingly lost, the fight against integration, it was clear to those defending the conservative platform in Falls Church that a change in the City Council could mean a change in integration policy, as well.

“It was never stated publicly, but it was all over the place,” Olom said. He added that there were many who weren’t too worried about integration, but those that “did give a hoot knew, and they spread the word.”

One member of the Falls Church School Board in 1959, in particular, was a supporter of the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, a group formed in the wake of the Brown Vs. Board decision dedicated to maintaining segregation, even to the point of closing schools, as had happened in Virginia ‘s Prince Edward County .

In the election of June 9, 1959, with a solid show of support from the citizens of Falls Church, all three CBC candidates won seats on the City Council. But with the three victories, the CBC was still a vote shy of having control over the seven-member Council. However, prior to the election, a member of the existing council, Charlie Hailey met with the CBC and came to an agreement with the CBC leadership that if it won, he would be willing to take their side as long as they voted for him as mayor.

The CBC agreed and when the Council took office after the election, it ended up in control of the Council by a four-to-three margin, with the assistance of Hailey as mayor.

“He sensed that the atmosphere was changing,” Olom said.

Another Chance

Hailey’s decision meant that the City, which for nine years had been heading in one direction, suddenly performed an about-face just as integration was once again becoming a front-burner issue.

In 1961, in its continued effort to resist federal pressure to integrate schools statewide, Virginia adopted a fall-back “local option” policy. The policy allowed localities to petition for the right to decide student placement.

In order to take advantage of the change, each individual school board had to vote to recommend to their City Council that it apply for exemption from the State Pupil Placement policy. The Council then had to vote to approve that recommendation before the state would cede power to the locality.

The procedure was meant to create prohibitive complications for local governments and give individuals at the local level the power to stem integration. But though intended to delay desegregation, in Falls Church the change meant that the newly elected Council members could take the first steps towards integrated schools.

Following the example of Arlington County, which integrated almost immediately after the passage of the new policy, Falls Church began the process to regain local control over pupil placements.

Having failed twice before to integrate when this new opportunity first arose, it was unlikely that the CBC-controlled City Council would miss this chance, especially when its Arlington neighbors already succeeded.

In the year following the Council election, the School Board underwent an overhaul as the new Council replaced conservative School Board members when their terms expired with others eager to develop new educational ideas in Falls Church and also looking to finally integrate the schools.

Obstacles on the Way

But moving toward integration still had hurdles. One was the role of School Board member H.P. “Duke” Strople, who remained on the board as his term had yet to expire.

Strople, a New Jersey native, had long been active in the City and its schools. Olom remembers him as a small man who delivered long orations to the City Council in his slow, drawn-out Jersey accent.

In 1951, Strople had been part of the Falls Church Emergency Schools Committee which brought the charges of maladministration against the School Board, compelling six members to resign. Strople later became a member of the School Board appointed by the conservative City Council.

Even before being chosen for the School Board, however, Strople was a regular at City Council and School Board meetings, where he would regularly get up and complain about school funding, which he felt was too high.

Jessie Thackrey, a long-time resident who has been active in the City for five decades, and was a neighbor of Strople’s, said that he would speak so long that the City eventually created a maximum speaking time of just five minutes, a limit that survives to this day, now standing at three minutes.

Thackrey said that Strople was notorious in the community for his opposition to funding the schools. In February 1959, some students from George Mason High School staged a mock mourning in reaction to Strople’s recommendation to eliminate two nurse positions and the psychologist position at their school. As part of the prank they erected a tombstone in front of Strople’s house and burnt the letters “GM” into his yard.

Thackrey said that as adults and neighbors, she and her husband tried to take the issue seriously, especially when Strople wanted to make big deal out of the prank and punish the students. But so many people secretly thought it was funny, that it ended up with nothing more than an apology by the students.

After the 1959 election, and with the new School Board soon in place, Strople became a minority voice on several issues, including a strident opposition to integration.

In February 1961, the new School Board began the process of recommending that the City take control over pupil placement from the state, the first step to integration.

Six of the seven school board members were in support of the action but Strople stood hard against the idea. Though it was possible to still make the recommendation without Strople’s vote, the board wanted a unanimous decision.

School Board member Roger Wollenberg made it a goal of his to get that unanimous vote, according to Wollenberg’s daughter, Meredith Morrison. The story goes, she said, that the night before the vote Wollenberg took Strople out for some drinks, then convinced him to support the School Board’s majority decision.

A prominent First Amendment lawyer, Wollenberg was known for being extremely persuasive, and the next day, when Wollenberg proposed that Falls Church recommend control over its own pupil placement, it was Strople who stood up and seconded the move. The resolution passed unanimously.

A month later the City Council unanimously approved local control over pupil assignment.

But the Council approval didn’t translate directly into integration. With the policy still being “freedom of choice,” it was up to each black student to apply and seek approval from the School Board to attend Falls Church schools. Facing the prospect of attending a school where the majority of the students might be opposed to integration, there was strong liklihood that black students would just continue to attend segregated schools.

Though he consented on pupil placement, Strople continued to work to ensure that black students would remain in segregated schools. Following the Council’s unanimous acceptance of local placement, Strople attempted to make official the exchange policy that the Falls Church schools had been using for the past 12 years in regards to its black students. Strople opposed any move by the City to stop the payment of tuitions to Fairfax County for black students to attend non-integrated black schools there, thereby compelling full integration. But Strople’s backdoor attempt to perpetuate the process was voted down, 5-1 with one abstention.

Finally, on April 4, 1961, the first-ever applications were filed on behalf of two black students to attend schools in the City. A third student filed a day later. The applications were approved by Superintendent Irvin Schmitt on April 13, 1961 . That fall, on September 6, 1961, three black students walked into their first classes in Falls Church, a thirteen year old girl and a fifteen year old girl at George Mason and a six year old boy at Madison Elementary. The single column headline in the Northern Virginia Sun on that day stated simply, “All is Quiet.”

A Personal Account

Despite assurances by officials at George Mason High School and Madison Elementary that integration occurred “smoothly,” the experiences of those first students was anything but.

“You didn’t have any riots, you didn’t have any signs, you didn’t have all the drama. So to them everything was OK,” said Marian Costner, one of those original three students, of the school officials.

Costner, now married and living in Alexandria as Marian Selby, sat down for an extensive interview with the News-Press about what it was like to be the first black student at George Mason High School , and how she weathered discrimination from fellow students and teachers in her three year journey to graduation.

Costner is the daughter of Reverend Wallace E. Costner, former pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Falls Church, located off Annandale Road on Costner Drive, a road named after her father. A vital part of the community, Rev. Costner began preaching at Second Baptist in 1932 and remained at the church for nearly 40 years before his death.

Among those in Falls Church African American community, Rev. Costner was one of the most respected voices in town. Mary White, a lifetime member of Second Baptist, talked to the News-Press about how Reverend Costner was like a father to all of them. She described how he would go out of his way to help any person in the community, no matter how well he knew them or how long they had lived here. He had taken White’s mother to the hospital when she had given birth to her, and he had brought Mary home from the hospital when she gave birth to her own first child.

But along with supporting his parishioners in their daily lives, Rev. Costner was also a civil rights preacher and a political leader. In the 1950s, as the fight for integration heated up, Rev. Costner was leading the charge from the pulpit. He would say how blacks were paying taxes in the City and should attend the schools they paid for.

For Rev. Costner’s daughter, who was reaching high school age just as the City began to implement integration, the role of racial pioneer seemed to be preordained. Marian Costner was the adopted daughter of the Reverend, but her biological lineage was just as prestigious in terms of activism. Her great-grandfather was Joseph Tinner, a founder of the Fairfax County NAACP, the first ever rural branch in the organization’s history.

Still, even with this history, it was no small task for a teenager walking into a new school as the only African American, facing down centuries of bigotry, along with a chaotic present, in a time when violence over the issue was breaking out across the country.

But school integration was something that had to be fought by the resolve of children and teenagers, and without their courageous efforts, could not happen. While the fight to integrate buses and lunch counters could be waged by people of all ages, schools by their very definition required heroics from students who, in normal circumstances should just have to worry about homework, after school activities and friendships.

Costner said that she remembers her parents talking with her about the choice. They asked her whether she would be willing to go, but to her, she said, the choice was already made. It was what she was supposed to do.

Now, looking back on that time decades after she completed high school and knowing what she does now, Costner said she’s not sure whether she would have made the same decision.

“They were right decisions. I needed to go. But whether it was right for me…I still think about it. I think I missed an awful lot by attending George Mason,” she said.

Costner said that going from the all-black Luther Jackson, the school she attended as a ninth-grader, to George Mason High School for her sophomore year was quite a shock. At Luther Jackson, she had been very popular.

In just her freshman year she was a member of the basketball team, the choir, Spanish club, Pep Squad, drama club and the math and science club.

Her first year at Mason, though, would prove to be far different.

From the start, she said, she could tell she was going to face resistance in a number of ways. The first time she got on the school bus, Costner remembers the bus-driver turning to her and asking her how she liked going to school in America, assuming she was a foreign exchange student.

“I looked at him and I said ‘compared to what?'” Costner laughed. “He did a double take, like ‘Oh no, she’s really black.’ He was blown away”

Costner talked about walking through the halls and classmates yelling racial epithets at her, telling her to go back where she belonged. Even among the teachers, Costner can remember several of the staff who treated her differently from the rest of the students, though they were less obvious in their behavior.

Going home at the end of the day didn’t necessarily mean an escape from persecution, though Costner said that her parents did their best to shield her from the worst.

She remembers waking up one morning to find her father cleaning up burn spots on their front lawn. Though he never told her exactly what it was, White confirmed that on at least one occasion, a cross was burned at the Costner household in response to her attending George Mason.

On another occasion Costner came home to find a voodoo doll stuck in her door. She said she was so naïve at the time that she actually believed someone had given her a gift. Her father had taken away the doll, telling her it wasn’t something for her to play with, but it wasn’t until years later, looking back, that she realized what it really meant.

Even more painful than those slights from individual classmates was the general animosity Costner said she felt in her junior year during the Junior-Senior Prom. Scheduled to be held at the Army/Navy Country Club, the prom was the bright spot of the spring semester for the students. As they always do, it involved lavish dining and decorations, and was the highlight for students who spent days picking out dressed and prom dates.

A day before the prom was to be held, however, someone at the club found out that a black student would be among the attendees and contacted the school to tell them that if Costner showed up, she wouldn’t be allowed in.

Fearing legal action from Rev. Costner, George Mason administrators moved the prom at the last minute. Instead of lavish dining, George Mason juniors and seniors snacked on peanuts and popcorn. Costner said that she stood in the corner of the room, practically able to feel the anger directed at her, it was so intense.

She was so uncomfortable she left after just half an hour, knowing that that probably made her classmates even more upset.

But Costner retained a brave, pro-active posture. In 1963, while in her junior year of high school, she got involved in integrating the State Theatre. Before that time, blacks had to go all the way to Washington, D.C. to watch movies. After complaints from Falls Church residents, the State Theatre eventually agreed to allow blacks to sit in the balcony, but Costner and several other black students refused to be satisfied.

With the urging of her father, Costner and her fellow black students walked in picket lines in front of the theatre, refusing to move until ownership capitulated and allowed them to sit in the regular seats. She said that on the picket line there were those who accosted them and threw food at them. There was even a group of white supremacists who showed up to intimidate them. But they kept demonstrating until the State Theatre agreed to allow them in.

By the end of her senior year, Costner said that she had gotten stronger, the past three years building in her the energy to go further than before, something which would ultimately lead to more controversy.

While she had previously just been happy to get through the school day without being intimidated, at her senior prom she decided to take the “bull by the horns” and go with a white student as her date, the son of California Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin.

To make things even more scandalous, Sharon Schmutzler, a white student from George Mason, went to the prom with Costner’s cousin. The two couples wore black and white to draw even more attention to their statement. “The School Board didn’t like it at all,” Costner said. “But to us, it was just my way of venting.”

Over her three years at George Mason, Costner did make friends, among them, many who were considered to be the most popular at the school. They included Linda and Joanne Silverstein, daughters of Harold Silverstein, who was elected to the Falls Church City Council in 1961.

Still, Costner said that when she finally graduated in 1964, she left high school and didn’t look back. “I have very few good memories of Mason. That’s why I never go back to reunions,” she said. “Unless someone in my class married inter-racially, it would still be only me.”

For the past 28 years she has raised her three sons in Alexandria with her husband, a deputy sheriff with the Alexandria Police Department. She owns and runs a public relations business.

As for her feelings on race, Costner said that her experience at Mason taught her to separate race from her feelings about individual people. “No matter how bad people treated me, I didn’t condemn the whole race for that,” she said. “That was an important thing that my parents taught me.”

When Marian Costner graduated from George Mason High School in 1964 there were less than half a dozen black students at the school. By 1965, Falls Church was one of the few school districts in the entire greater Washington, D.C. area that had fully integrated.

 

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