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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.

Evelyn Butts (third from left) attends a PTA meeting in 1959.

``School Facilities Unequal: No Halting Of Coronado Plans, Board Tells PTA``, New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA); Jul 25, 1959.

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.

Patricia Godbolt, one of the Norfolk 17, requested a transfer from the Booker T. Washington High to Norview High School.

Young, P, Jr., ``Key Participants In Norfolk's School Integration Suit: The Faces Of The Future``, New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, Va); Aug 30, 1958.

Excerpt from the transcript of interview between Patricia Godblot and her mother, Mrs. Stith, with J. J. Brewbaker, Norfolk Superintendent of Schools and school officials.

Records of the Virginia Pupil Placement Board, 1957-1966. Accession 26517. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

Statement of Patricia Godblot's application denial.

Records of the Virginia Pupil Placement Board, 1957-1966. Accession 26517. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

Excerpt from ``Report for the Pupil Placement Board of the Commonwealth of Virginia to His Excellency, J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., Governor``.,

Records of the Virginia Pupil Placement Board, 1957-1966. Accession 26517. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

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.

Records of the Virginia Pupil Placement Board, 1957-1966. Accession 26517. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

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.

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