‘We had to start somewhere’

Published 1:38 pm Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Lisa Evans’ memories of attending first grade in Smithfield include watching her school bus – filled with white students – deliberately drive past her bus stop without stopping.

“Half the time, the driver would go past, they would just leave us out there,” Evans said.

Evans’ now 87-year-old mother, Jean Williams Uzzle, had to drive her daughter to school herself on those days. Evans remembers the look of utter frustration on her mother’s face well.

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Another of Evans’ memories involves planning with her friend — Kim Shivers — the only other Black student in their class, when the two would retrieve their coats at the end of the school day.

They had to be quick about it, Evans recalls, to avoid being harassed and sometimes beaten by their white classmates.

“The teacher acted as if she didn’t hear us,” Evans said. “I learned to fight real well.”

But it was Uzzle whom Evans described as the “real fighter” in her family’s ultimately successful legal battle to force an end to segregation in Isle of Wight County Schools.

The year was 1967. Though it had been 13 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools, Isle of Wight had only begun allowing Black students to attend formerly white-only schools two years earlier, in 1965.

At the time, Isle of Wight was still operating under its “freedom of choice” policy — a precursor to full integration that had resulted in less than a tenth of the county’s Black parents, Uzzle among them, opting to enroll their children in the formerly all-white Smithfield High School on James Street.

The building, which housed grades 1-12 during Evans’ childhood, is now home to the town’s library, YMCA and a branch of Paul D. Camp Community College. A newer Smithfield High School opened its doors in 1980 just outside the town’s borders.

Evans has a folder filled with newspaper clippings and photographs her mother saved over the decades. Among its contents is a Virginian Pilot story reporting Isle of Wight’s enrollment at 4,765 students during the 1967-68 school year when she started first grade. Though Black students, at the time, comprised a majority of Isle of Wight’s total student body, only 164 attended formerly white schools that year.

The old Smithfield High, Evans said, was closer to Uzzle’s home than Hardy Elementary or Westside High School, which had previously been designated for Black students. It was why her mother had enrolled her, her sister, Cheryl, and her brothers, Titus and Sheldon, there.

After enduring a year of retaliation for enrolling her children at Smithfield High — which included her husband’s employer firing him, and a local bank having tried to foreclose on the family’s home — Uzzle worked with Amy Palmer, then-president of the county’s NAACP chapter, to sue Isle of Wight County’s School Board in federal court in August 1968.

“The guy my father worked for said he would not have his kids in the same school with Black kids,” Evans recalls.

A Virginian Pilot clipping her mother saved, reporting allegations the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights had made against Isle of Wight, corroborates her account.

“Crosses have been burned in front of homes, shots fired in the night, and threatening phone calls have been received by some residents,” a report by the Civil Rights Commission’s Virginia Advisory Committee, as reprinted in the Pilot, stated. “One mother told the committee that, during the three years her four children have attended Smithfield High School, her husband lost the job he held for 14 years, their mortgage was foreclosed, and his wages at a new job were garnished.”

Uzzle was the unnamed mother of four, Evans confirmed. Her father’s ex-employer had been a member of the bank’s board of directors.

“She wasn’t even late for no payments; they were just angry, I guess,” Evans said.

Palmer retained the services of her nephew, Richmond-based attorney Henry L. Marsh III, to file the lawsuit.

“We called him ‘Buck,’” Evans recalls.

The lawsuit named 84 children as plaintiffs, including Evans, whose name was Carolyse Williams at the time. They won, despite Isle of Wight’s protestations that its freedom-of-choice system was “void of discrimination” and then-School Board Chairman J. Edward Hall — a named defendant in the suit — telling a representative of the federal government at a School Board meeting he believed “education in Isle of Wight County would suffer greatly” were its school system to fully integrate.

Isle of Wight County Schools fully integrated at the start of the 1969-70 school year. But even then, racial tensions in the school system didn’t disappear overnight.

That school year, Evans recalls, Yvette Jefferson — sister of Rudolph Jefferson, who now serves as the only Black member of the county’s Board of Supervisors — had been elected homecoming queen but was initially denied permission to be in Smithfield High School’s homecoming parade.

“We got the float ready,” Evans said, “and my mother and Amy Palmer got her in the parade at the very end.”

Still, she doesn’t blame her mother for thrusting her into a school with only one other girl in her class who looked like her, or the subsequent retaliation and legal battle

“We had to start somewhere,” Evans said. “It was for the good of the county.”

As someone who endured discrimination at the hands of her school system, Evans now has something to say about the current state of affairs in Isle of Wight.

Last fall, she watched as angry parents protested the alleged influence of Critical Race Theory — which argues American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minorities — in Isle of Wight’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. They took specific aim at Smithfield High’s “Read Woke” challenge, which encourages students to read social justice-themed books.

Some parents argued the books were too graphic for high-schoolers. In October, former School Board Chairwoman Jackie Carr withdrew from her bid for reelection, lamenting that “politics” had “crept its way into our school.” In January, newly elected Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order banning the teaching of “divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory” in Virginia’s public schools.

Even when her family had been embroiled in their lawsuit with the school system, they’d “never disrespected school board members” during board meetings, Evans said. “It makes me feel like, you know, here we go fighting again … and we’re going backwards, not forwards.”