Interview of Hovey S. Dabney. Interviewed by George Gilliam, Mason Mills, of The Ground Beneath Our Feet project.

Hovey S. Dabney was a founding member of the Charlottesville Education Foundation in 1958, an organization to promote private segregated academies as an alternative to integrated public schools.

This interview was taken in 2000 for "Massive Resistance," episode four of "The Ground Beneath Our Feet: Virginia's History Since the Civil War," a production of George H. Gilliam and the Central Virginia Educational Television Corporation. George H. Gilliam is the Producer of the series, William G. Thomas, III the Assistant Producer, and Mason Mills the Director of Photography.

The transcripts represent what was said in the interview to the best of our ability. It is possible that some words, particularly names, have been misspelled. We have made no attempt to correct mistakes in grammar.

Mr. Gilliam: I want to talk to you about two separate episodes of Virginia's experience trying to cope with the Supreme Court ruling in 1954. The first phase would be your involvement with private schools during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Then after we talk about that I'd like to shift gears and get into your service on the Charlottesville School Board; and in talking to you, I'm aware that I'm talking to someone whose whole adult life has been occupied with contributing to education whether it was in independent schools or School Board or most recently your services as rector of the University of Virginia. As you recall in the early 1950s, the NAACP and parents of black children were increasingly agitating to integrate the public schools of Virginia. In 1954 at the time the Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision, the situation in Charlottesville was very unsettled. Harry Michael was representing the School Board at that time, he advised they postpone construction of an addition to Lane High School until it was clarified how many students would be attending that school and how many would be attending Burleigh School. Throughout the middle '50s various groups proposed different alternatives; but in 1956 the Virginia General Assembly passed what has come to be known as the Massive Resistance Laws, one component of which was that public schools would be closed when they came under a court order to be integrated. Another component was that the state would provide tuition grants to students who wished to attend independent schools. When in the spring of 1957 and the early summer of 1957 it became obvious that things were going to change in Virginia, groups started to form in Charlottesville to respond to this; and in the spring of 1958, the Charlottesville Educational Foundation was formed. And in the summer of that same year a group that called itself the Emergency Mothers formed in the Venable neighborhood. I'd like to go back to 1958. As I understand it, you lived in the Venable School District at that time?
Mr. Dabney: That is correct and that was a segregated school at that time - all white. And it was probably the closest school in Charlottesville to the black districts. And the problem was that something had to be done if we were going to integrate it so you would not have all blacks in that district as opposed to whites. So I think that one of the things that a lot of people was thinking about was how can we do this so it will be done in such a way that all students would have equal opportunities to know one another. Cause you know there were areas in Charlottesville where there were all white students and really no blacks living in the area. I think at that time our thinking was first to have education for children because I think it was very frightening to parents of my age at that time that your children wouldn't be going to school or there wouldn't be any school for them. So what was done to start out with was there were groups formed, like you said the Charlottesville Foundations and the Mothers in the Venable School area, to provide education. At that time I was on the Board of a Church in Charlottesville and the church did not want the children to use it for education. But the Board of Deacons voted for it and afforded an opportunity for people to get an education. But there were a lot of homes in Charlottesville where children went to be taught. And these things were - you know I don't remember it so much as a difference between minorities and the whites, I think it was more of a what can we do to make this the way it should be.
Segregation Academies
Mr. Gilliam: Hovey, in the summer of 1958, not only were there divisions between black and white but the white community seemed to be going in a couple of different directions. There was a group that had always had their children in independent schools and then there was another group that apparently wanted to have their children in independent schools but money was a problem. Private school tuition was a problem. And then there was the other group that you referred to as the Emergency Mothers who wanted to provide schools that would be open while the public schools were closed. But they vowed that as soon as the public schools reopened, they would close their schools. Charlottesville Educational Foundation said, "We're here to provide a permanent alternative - a permanent set of private schools." And you aligned with the Charlottesville Education Foundation.
Mr. Dabney: That is correct.
Mr. Gilliam: What positions did you hold in that corporation during those years?
Mr. Dabney: If I held any positions I don't really remember it. I know that Barry Marshall was a part of that, and then there was - was it Harold Burris' wife who was on that? There were people that really trying to find a solution to the school problem. I don't think it was so much as being segregationists or anything like that. I think that what they were trying to do was to have quality education for their children. And you know from experience that Charlottesville has always afforded quality education to the young people in the community. And I think that a lot of that comes about because so many of the people that live in our community are professors at the University and they want quality education for their children. They understand it and want to do it. So I think that - that was more of the goals. I think in the final analysis Charlottesville Educational Foundation did try to become more of a segregationist school than a school for anybody that wanted to come.
Mr. Gilliam: The Charlottesville Educational Foundation schools were not able to open until the tuition grant program was firmly in place.
Mr. Dabney: That's right.
Mr. Gilliam: How tied were the independent schools in Charlottesville to the existence of the tuition grant?
Mr. Dabney: Well, as you said many of them could not have done because they didn't have the funds to do it without the grants; and so that was essential to making that goal. And you know I look back, George, I was the president of the Chamber of Commerce when this was going on and the city and county decided to create a bi-racial committee to work towards integration and I remember it. From the Chamber I appointed Mr. Henry Hayden to it and Bill Rhinehart was on it and then there was Reverend Mitchell. I don't know if you remember Reverend Mitchell. He was an Episcopal minister here in Charlottesville. And he was one of the hardest workers that I ever remember. You know he would point out to us that his daughter could go to Pence and Sterling's and buy an ice cream cone but then she had to go outside to eat it. And these were things that was terribly distressing to the black community and rightfully should have been corrected. I think the representative from the University to that bi-racial committee was a person of Chinese extraction and so it was a well coordinated group of people there.
Mr. Gilliam: As Charlottesville parents were struggling to adjust to the Supreme Court mandate that the schools be integrated, the state established a pupil placement board to assign students to the schools. How did that work in Charlottesville?
Mr. Dabney: George, I think it worked well. By that time I was on the Charlottesville School Board and I think that it was probably essential to do that. To make sure that we cleared up any segregated schools. And they did a good job at that.
Mr. Gilliam: In the early years before you were on the school board, the school board seemed to move extremely slow in tested black students before assigning them to schools; and the impression that many observers had at the time was that the School Board and state board were dragging their feet in terms of trying to get the schools integrated. What is your impression - in the early years?
Pace of Change
Mr. Dabney: In the early years I think that was true. We were still somewhat under the Byrd regime and Harry Byrd had declared that we were going to be segregationists and we were not going to have schools that were integrated. And then you remember the separate but equal program that went on that they were going to have separate schools for the minorities but they were going to be equal to the white schools and all that was just foot dragging to get to the point where it had to be done. And as you note two of the first children that applied, their father worked for us at the bank and he could not read or write. And these people were so brilliant that you could have just given them the degree. And it's interesting how those things develop.
Mr. Gilliam: When the tuition grant program was held to violate the state constitution the attendance - the enrollments at the independent schools - the CEF schools - dropped dramatically and quickly. Did the - Do you think that the falling off of the availability of that money was more significant or do you think people just simply accommodated themselves to the notion that the schools have got to be integrated?
Mr. Dabney: I do not think that the cutting off of the money was the real thing. I think that people came to the realization that this was a way of life and as we advance we've got to do these things. And they became more reconciled to it and thought about it more and I was in the same situation. And it just seemed to me that that was the right thing to do at the right time. And I think that it's been proven that minorities can come in and do a good job and get good grades and compete in the market today. And I guess seeing that I'm going through a lot of generation time - but seeing that at the University of Virginia. These people did outstanding jobs - minorities. And we've got a lot of them that are graduates of Virginia that we awful proud of - that just stood out.
Business Discrimination
Mr. Gilliam: In the early 1960s when people were struggling the hardest to adjust, was there ever any concern in the business community, particularly the banking community about how property values would be affected in school zones where integration was taking place?
Mr. Dabney: No, I don't ever remember that being discussed in the bank. Or any red lining or anything like that where we wouldn't make loans. That never occurred. I don't think we even thought of that. But I'm sure the bigger picture you can learn a lot about that did take place and I was in a bank in Washington, D.C. talking to the president and they had red lined District of Columbia. And you know the government was terribly upset about it and they had to stop doing that. You just couldn't do that.
Mr. Gilliam: Virginia avoided much of the ugliness that other states experienced. There were a few but not really as many cross burnings. There were very few confrontations at the schoolhouse door and this kind of thing. A lot of people, a lot of observers say that the existence of the CEF schools and the same thing in other communities - Prince Edward Academy and Norfolk Academy and those areas - the existence of those schools provided a safety valve for people who were just unalterably opposed to integrating schools. It provided a place for their children to go and that it provided a safety valve. What would be your read about the safety valve?
Mr. Dabney: Well, I think you know that people that were most for segregation were the hot heads in the community; and if you didn't have an alternative for them, you probably would have had some problems. Thank goodness we did have that which prevented it. But you know that's all gone now it's just - people don't even think about it anymore. And I think that's good, you know it's just - It might be in our area, our community, some people that feel that way but they're not outspoken and you just don't hear about it.
Charlottesville School Board
Mr. Gilliam: When were you appointed to the School Board? Do you remember?
Mr. Dabney: I think it was 1960 or about that time. I don't remember the exact year but it was the early '60s. Or maybe it was the last couple of years in the 50's.
Mr. Gilliam: During the time that you served on the School Board the state had to certify that the independent school did not get a majority of their funds from tuition grants if they were to continue to serve. Did the School Board have any involvement in the administration of the tuition grant?
Mr. Dabney: Did not, did not. The School Board, you know when I went on they - decided. You know these School Boards at that time, and some of them still are, were appointed by the City Council. And three of us went on that board -
Mr. Gilliam: Was that you and Bob Humphries and Buddy Chessler?
Mr. Dabney: Right. We all went on at the same time. And determined to do something good for the community. And it was trying times in those days, you know it was trying to get the groups to meld together correctly and it was tough trying to get the financial support for the schools because the city council that time - whenever we would bring a budget up they would think it was too high and cut it back and it took a lot of hours and a lot of time to work through that. But, George, I don't ever remember anybody saying, "Well, I'm going to stand outside with a gun and if they come across I'm going to shoot them." I don't remember anybody having that feeling. There were people who felt that they were being put upon to have minorities with their children and I've had people come in my office and tell me something that was taught to their child by a black and I said, "If you waited long enough a white one would have taught him anyway." So those type of people were around but by and large people in this area were trying to make it happen. And I think the University of Virginia had a lot to do with that.
Mr. Gilliam: How so?
Mr. Dabney: Well, because the majority of the people at that time living in Charlottesville at that time were working something to do with the University. And I think that the University were far greater at understanding what this would do and what it meant than the man in the street.
Mr. Gilliam: In 1965 the tuition grants were again under challenge and the schools again, the local schools that were dependent on the tuition grants again suffered a fall off in enrollments. Did the public schools - how did you all on the School Board deal with projecting student populations with all this uncertainty over the private school population?
Mr. Dabney: It was awful difficult because you didn't know exactly what was going to happen from one year to the other. And that involved schools and needing new schools and how to build them and what to build them and where to locate them. These were all big problems.
Mr. Gilliam: How was the decision made to build one high school for the city of Charlottesville rather than two spread out high schools?
Mr. Dabney: Well there was a lot of debate on that and especially the junior highs which we put on either side of town. There was a strong feeling that you would - if you built two high schools you would split the community and have inner arguments and fighting about my class is better than yours, the football teams and everything was a concern. And that's why we decided that the only way to go was to have one high school. That might not have been thought that way today but that was the feeling with the School Board at that time.
Mr. Gilliam: The preservation of the football team's winning record -
Mr. Dabney: That's right - very important. [Laughter]
Mr. Gilliam: Amazing how these things drive these decisions.
Mr. Gilliam: Raymond Bell was the first African-American appointed to the Charlottesville School Board. How - What was his role on the School Board? Did he act as a conscience? Did he act - was he pushing?
Mr. Dabney: He was an advocate for the minorities. But I can tell you one thing. Ray Bell was one of the greatest people I ever served on a board with. I mean he understood, he was articulate at pointing out what he thought was right and fighting for their cause without ever being obnoxious or overdoing it. I mean if I had to serve on any board with anybody, I would take Ray Bell. He has really done a lot for education in the community.
Mr. Gilliam: Was he difficult?
Mr. Dabney: Never. I don't ever remember any difficulty on the Board. I mean there might be a disagreement on how much we should build the school for and how many rooms and such as that; but it wasn't ever any not understanding one another. It was very easy. And you know whoever picked Ray Bell picked the right man at the right time. Because you could put other the people on there and it would have been a disaster.
Mr. Gilliam: Do you remember how long you stayed as a member of the Board of the Charlottesville Education Foundation?
Mr. Dabney: Probably six months. Not long.
Mr. Gilliam: A short period.
Mr. Dabney: Right.
Mr. Gilliam: In 1969 the School Board adopted school attendance zones which placed predominately black residential areas in every school zone so that the black population was pretty well spread among the schools. What do you remember about the decisions that led up to that?
Mr. Dabney: Well, you know in - [Cough]
Mr. Gilliam: Do you need water?
Mr. Dabney: No, I'm fine. In the early part of the integration that was not the case and we had a lot of places where you would either have all whites or all blacks and that had to come about so you could have some - be sure they were integrated and they were working together and that you did not discriminate against any of the whites or the blacks by having them and that could be so easily done you know. By gerrymandering you could have taken care of that. But it was the School Board's intention that it be absolutely racially set up so everybody would be going to school with somebody else.
Mr. Gilliam: Did it work well from what you could see?
Mr. Dabney: Oh yeah. I think it worked excellent.
Mr. Gilliam: In the early days of having black students attend Lane High School which was the predominately white high school, there were some - the first blacks to attend were female and the females asked if they could bring dates to one of the dances from the black high school which was Burleigh. And the School Board - and I don't believe you were a member at that time - but their first response was to cancel the dance rather than permit any social interracial contact. When did that policy change?
Mr. Dabney: I know, I was not on the School Board at that time but I remember it very well that there was a lot of concern and discussion. George, I think that changed probably in the 70s because you know it was just something that gradually - you know - these people started going together and being in school every day and they become friendly. And you know I remember at the time this was starting out, I hired a young black to work in the summer for me in our bookkeeping department. And it hadn't been but a couple of days when a group of them came down and said our husbands and boyfriends won't let us work with a minority and we're going to have to resign. I said, "I understand it completely and you go right ahead and write me your resignation and that will be fine." Nobody ever wrote a resignation but finally after this chap had been there about a month all of them were bringing their boyfriends and their husbands down to meet him because they were so very fond of him. But that's a situation where a person sold himself and I think that happened more and more and more.
Mr. Gilliam: Did the integration in the workplace precede or did it follow the integration in schools?
Mr. Dabney: It followed. It followed the integration of the schools and it -. We hired a black woman to come to work for us and she worked until her retirement about a year or two years ago and did an outstanding job. Everybody was crazy about her. But you know it wasn't but a short period of time before we had loads and loads of minorities working for us because they did a good job and they were well educated and served us well. And our customers liked them.
Mr. Gilliam: Do you remember what year it was that your bank first broke the color barrier for other than menial positions - janitorial positions and that kind of thing?
Mr. Dabney: George, I think that was probably '59 or '60 - right in that period of time, when we did that.
Mr. Gilliam: And do you remember what a minority was hired for? What type of position?
Mr. Dabney: Well, bookkeeping, tellers - in that area. And you know as it went on we had lending officers who were minorities and in the trust department. So we had them in all areas of the bank. But the girl that started out we hired and started as a teller. And she was just fantastic. You know you're lucky when you find somebody that good - white or black who will do that good a job.
Mr. Gilliam: What was your proudest moment as a member of the School Board? What do you look back with the greatest good feeling about?
Mr. Dabney: Well, I think the warm fuzzy feeling is to be a part of putting together schools of all races. I mean you have to feel good about that because, you know, it's good for everybody. So I think that would be the most important thing I remember. Unless I'd say when my son got his diploma from high school. [Laughter]
Mr. Gilliam: Where did he get his diploma?
Mr. Dabney: At Lane.
Mr. Gilliam: Well, I have no other questions Hovey.
Mr. Mills: The only thing I can think of is that we have a number of answers to some of the questions that are really good but they don't stand on their own. Meaning they're -
Mr. Gilliam: Hovey, I think that you that you were appointed and - I may have missed something - but according to the city council minute book you were appointed on June 20th of '66 - a little bit later than you were thinking. On that day, they appointed you, Bob Humphries and Buddy Kessler for a term that started on July 1 of '66. Does that square with your memory?
Mr. Dabney: I think that's right. I've been on so many boards I have to - [Laughter]
Mr. Gilliam: Mr. Dabney during what period did you serve on the Charlottesville City School Board?
Mr. Dabney: I was appointed to the school board in June of 1966 and served for four years starting July 1, 1966.
Mr. Gilliam: When you came on the School Board, Raymond Bell, the first black appointed to the Board, had served for about a year. How would you characterize his role on the School Board?
Mr. Dabney: Well, Raymond Bell, as you know, was on the School Board before I came on it but he was a solid member of the School Board.
Mr. Gilliam: ... just went on the School Board in 1966, Raymond Bell had been on for a little over a year. What was Bell's role on the School Board?
Mr. Dabney: I guess you could call him a peacemaker. Ray was on the Board a year before I was and when I got there he really was fantastic. He would give sound answers. He never was disagreeable. But had a lot of wisdom and was great help to get us through the integration part - his leadership.
Mr. Gilliam: Does that cover the questions that you had?
Mr. Mills: I think so.
Mr. Gilliam: because I think we can use-
Mr. Mills: I've got a question for you but just tell me
Mr. Gilliam: Okay.
Mr. Mills: And you can look at George - [Laughter]
Mr. Dabney: Thank you
White Parent Views
Mr. Mills: I'm wondering for someone my age where I grew up after a lot of these decisions had been made and a lot of trouble had been gone through really. What was it like going through there where you felt - you were on the Board afterwards - but during the time right before the Board, do you remember how that was
Mr. Gilliam: As a parent?
Mr. Dabney: As a parent?
Mr. Mills: As a parent and as member of the community?
Mr. Dabney: Well, as a parent, and as friends with all my neighborhood -
Mr. Mills: And if you would look at George.
Mr. Gilliam: Hovey, how did you as a parent living in that neighborhood react to the changes that were really being opposed from outside?
Mr. Dabney: George there wasn't - you know, what the main situation was that the area that I lived and all of my friends and their children wanted an education. I don't think they were concerned about whether they were going with minority to school. They wanted to go to school, and I think that if we had left it to the children, we'd never had any problems anyway because they get along well. And, they, you know, they played together, and they played sports together. My son played on the football team with blacks and he was crazy about them. So, I don't think it was any group of people in the community or any person that was, you know, on the side saying we're going to not let this happen, we're going to figure some way to get around it. Maybe Harry Byrd and some of the people in the state who thought they could do either have Massive Resistance or either separate but equal, which never came truly, but, you know, it's bad that we didn't give the minorities more education years ago. You know, in Orange County and Culpepper County and Rappanhannock County when a minority finished grammar school, there was no place for him to go to school because there was no high school there. And I don't think that actually took place until 1949 that there was a school for minorities to go.
Mr. Gilliam: The business community was the first large block of the traditional Democratic Party base in Virginia to abandon Massive Resistance. A group of businessmen, over a thousand in Richmond, met with Byrd and with Lindsey Almond and told them that they were having great difficulty attracting qualified employees and that North Carolina and Tennessee were getting the good industrial prospects because of the situation in Virginia. How important do you think the leadership of the business community of Charlottesville in helping this transition?
Mr. Dabney: I think it was very helpful because, you know, the business community realized that, the future of this area would be that we integrate and be able to bring people - you know you couldn't get corporations who wanted to expand to come to Virginia because they didn't want to get in a place where you had segregation and, you know, they couldn't hire the people they needed. So, I think that had a lot to do with it and a lot to do with the community. The community used to meet, you know the bankers would meet downtown, the presidents of the bank and this biracial committee, all trying to make the integration smooth and make it, so it's successful for everybody.
Mr. Gilliam: Of course, the business community has been putting on the great push for improved higher education.
Mr. Dabney: Absolutely. You know, that's been the thing that's concerned the business community for the last five or six years because, you know, for a long period of time there we weren't getting any additional money from the state to fund the education and had to go elsewhere. That's why the University of Virginia just put on a capital fund drive and has raised over a billion dollars so that we don't have to rely completely on the funds coming from the General Assembly. It's important for quality education. It really is, and, you know, you're talking about the integration back in the '60s, you know, that was very important to the University just recently. We have these people that work together and understand it. You know, it's still - I guess there's still some feeling by some people that they'd like to have integration - I mean segregation, but it's just not in the cards. You know, you have some things happen at the University that's very concerning, and until that is completely cleared out, and I don't know when it will be, you will have these problems.
Mr. Gilliam: Thank you.
Mr. Dabney: Thank you.
Mr. Gilliam: I'd love to ask just one more and then that'll be it. Why do you think the - and this, again, can be in a complete science, but why do you think the procrastination of the integration was there? Can you just explain that to me a little bit?
Mr. Dabney: Well, when you're speaking of -
Mr. Gilliam: Why did it take so long?
Mr. Dabney: It took long because it's - let me go back. The integration question took a much longer time because you had to educate people, and - [Laughter]
Mr. Mills: Yeah, take a look. And it's okay you could say it. [Laughter]
Mr. Gilliam: The process of integrating the schools in Virginia really started in the early '50s and wasn't complete until the late 1960s. Why did it take almost twenty years for all of the pieces to come together?
Mr. Dabney: The reason that it took twenty years for all the pieces to come together was the state of mind of people, and, you know, it wasn't one day you could press a button, everybody would come in and everything would be integrated, everybody would know exactly what to do, but it takes times. And, you know, you had to have some counseling for the minorities when they came into school. You just couldn't put them in there and let them compete on a different plane. So, those things - it was just - can't find a word- it went on on a normal basis to go further, and further, and further, just like you said that, you know, they wouldn't let-have dances. They did away with those. Well, that was just a process of going through that everybody understood and everybody was happy with the situation.
Mr. Gilliam: History doesn't turn on a dime.
Mr. Dabney: Absolutely. It never has. It never will. But, you know, thinking back on it, I think we've come a long, long way in what we've done, and, you know, I think that there's not as much feeling of disadvantage now that minorities have. They can have the same opportunity, and I heard Governor Thomas Stanley say one time that, you know, if we're really going to be great and work at this, we have to educate them young. And I think that's true. If you educate them young, then they fit in and it's - they have a good life, they associate with anybody, and nobody even thinks about it.
Mr. Gilliam: Isn't that what the Catholic Church has always said, "let us have them until they're age six."
Mr. Dabney: That's right. Absolutely.
Mr. Gilliam: Hovey, thank you.
Mr. Dabney: I hope you got something out of that that you can use.
Mr. Gilliam: Oh, we got some great stuff.

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