Charlene Butts Ligon’s book Fearless: How a Poor Virginia seamstress took on Jim Crow, beat the poll tax and changed her city forever focuses on the story of her mother, Evelyn Butts, a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966), which abolished the use of a poll tax in state and local elections. One of the advantages of seeing the story through a daughter’s eyes is learning about what was occurring all around Evelyn Butts at the moment she made the choice to fix her name to a case that could have potentially dangerous consequences for herself and her family.
One such fraught situation was the federally mandated integration of schools and Virginia’s refusal, commonly known as “massive resistance.” Despite the decision of Brown v. Board (1954), schools in Virginia remained segregated, and in 1956 the Virginia Assembly adopted “The Stanley Plan.” The Stanley Plan consisted of 13 statues that were designed to forestall integration as long as possible. One measure included the creation of a three person Pupil Placement Board. This state-level board would work with local school boards to place students in “appropriate” schools.
This allowed the state to obey the letter of the law by saying that all students were able to request transfers to a different school while continuing to control the actual placement.
Evelyn Butts, as a mother and PTA member in Norfolk, already had lengthy experience in school issues. She applied to have her daughter Charlene transferred from the all Black Oakwood Elementary to the white Norview Elementary school. If Black students wished to transfer to the white school in their neighborhood they had to pass scholastic and psychological tests, as well as interviews. Some parents who wished to transfer their children refused to jump through such hoops. However, several did and were refused for various superficial reasons. Ligon writes how she was refused in 1958 for supposedly living closer to the Black-only Oakwood than the white-only Norview, even though the route used to prove this was based on car travel whereas she had to walk to school.
The Stanley Plan also allowed the Commonwealth to take control and shut down any schools that did integrate, leaving local school boards stuck between federal court mandates and state law. A group of parents and students, known collectively as the Norfolk 17, sued the state and won in court only to have Governor Almond close schools rather than allow them access to an education. The Library of Virginia holds the records of the Pupil Placement Board and due to the ongoing legislation, the interview transcripts of the Norfolk 17 with school officials were kept in the permanent files. These interview transcripts (such as the excerpt above) show the tactics that were used to try to push the families to withdraw their transfer requests.
Some families did withdraw in order to protect themselves, as a handwritten note included in the records which reads, “please dont [sic] put our name in the paper any more it may start [another] riot.” Although we don’t have a record of what Evelyn Butts said while seeking a transfer for her daughter Charlene in 1958, we do see that she refused to sign the pupil placement form, a form of protest some parents used to let it be known that they did not agree with the decision of the board.
Join the Common Ground Virginia History Book Group virtually on November 16th to discuss Fearless: How a Poor Virginia seamstress took on Jim Crow, beat the poll tax and changed her city forever, learn about Virginia History, and discuss what you would like to read in 2022! Also to be to check out the work of our 1971 Constitution Project Interns exploring how that constitution effected education in the Commonwealth.
- Lewis, Earl. In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
- Littlejohn, Jeffrey L., and Charles Howard Ford. Elusive Equality: Desegregation and Resegregation in Norfolk’s Public Schools. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
- Parramore, Thomas C., Peter C. Stewart, and Tommy Bogger. Norfolk: The First Four Centuries. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
- Wallenstein, Peter. Blue Laws and Black Codes: Conflict, Courts, and Change in Twentieth-Century Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.
- Evelyn Thomas Butts (Encyclopedia Virginia)
- Residents of Tomorrow newsletter – Tanner’s Creek (Sargent Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library)
- Proquest Black Newspaper Collection (requires Library of Virginia card)
Includes full-text issues of Norfolk Journal and Guide (1916–2003)
- Proquest Historical Newspapers: Washington Post (requires Library of Virginia card)
- True Southerner (Virginia Chronicle)
- Massive Resistance in Norfolk photographs (Sargent Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library)
- Norfolk Contingent to “March on Washington,” 1963 – Norfolk, Virginia photographs (Sargent Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library)
- Riddick v. Sch. Bd. of City of Norfolk (Court Listener)
- Norfolk Public Schools Desegregation Collection (Old Dominion University)
- School Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia (Old Dominion University)
- School Desegregation in Virginia (Library of Virginia)
- The 1971 Constitution: Real Change Made In The Lives Of Virginians (Library of Virginia)
- 1963 Virginia voting legislation (HathiTrust)
- Butler v. Thompson, 97 F. Supp. 17 (E.D. Va. 1951) (CourtListener)
- Constitution of 1902 (Library of Virginia)
- Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (Oyez)
- Patriotism, Perseverance and the End of the Poll Tax (VPM Radio)
- Poll Tax (Encyclopedia Virginia)
- Report of the Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention [1901/2] (Internet Archive)
- “State Poll Tax Ruled Unconstitutional” – Northern Virginia Sun, 25 March 1966 (Virginia Chronicle)
- Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Our Documents Initiative)
- We Demand Complete Realization: The Slow Legal Fight For Enfranchisement (UncommonWealth blog)