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Before Ruby Bridges, there were the Charlottesville Twelve

A Black man is sitting and wearing a clean white polo shirt and khaki pants. He is talking with a woman sitting next to him. She is wearing a sleeveless black blouse and glasses.
Screen Capture
VPM News Focal Point
Charles Alexander sits in front of the steps at the elementary school that he attended when integration took place in Virginia.

One of the most contentious periods in Virginia history ended the year Charles Alexander walked up the steps at Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville. He recalls the events leading to the end of Massive Resistance in 1959 and recounts some of his experiences as a member of the Charlottesville Twelve, a group of students which integrated two southern white schools more than a year before Ruby Bridges did so in Louisiana.


Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ANGIE MILES: And I'm joined now by Charles Alexander, better known to many as Alex-Zan. Thank you for being with us.


So, tell us how you became part of the Charlottesville Twelve, why you?

I became one of Charlottesville Twelve due to my awesome and dynamic mother, Ellen Elizabeth Taylor. She made the decision to be part of a group of plaintiffs through the local NAACP to integrate our Charlottesville schools. And my mother signed up and she was courageous and took the lead and decided what was best for me. And I lived on 11th Street, so actually Venable Elementary School was on 14th Street, so it was literally in my backyard. So she felt Venable being my neighborhood school wanted me to go to Venable Elementary School.

And what about preparation? Did your mother or your family prepare you in some way for this awesome task of integrating public schools?

No, not in terms of the educational sense, but I was prepared in terms of character, values, respect for self and others. That was the foundation. Everything else followed as far as coming into an all-white school. It just never dawned on me, all-white school, and they're white and I'm Black. It's just that I took the values from mother and family and I brought them with me to Venable.

What are some examples of things that your mother, your grandmother, taught you that you carried forward?

My mother made it very clear that it is not the color of your skin, but the goodness and greatness within. My grandmother, great-grandmother constantly reminded us that it doesn't cost to say hello. It's amazing how they can break the ice and how people respond to you when you say good morning or hello. Whether that response is positive or negative, many times it has nothing to do with you.

So, what do you remember the most about that first day? What stands out in your mind?

No more just to be about excited about going to school. It wasn't a matter that first day of going to an all-white school, just excitement about going to school. And when I look back at the photo of me going up the steps at Venable, maybe had a little kick in my step that I was eager and ready to go into the building to learn. I know at lunchtime, there were only two Black adults in the building. A Ms. Bryant, she worked in the cafeteria, and Mr. Swift, he was a custodian and they were like to us extended family members. They looked after us, and of course in cafeteria, maybe gave a extra dish or something, what have you, but we could always talk to them and just by their presence what was a positive influence.

And what was the response? How were you treated? Was there much opposition that you remember?

Well, it was a few negative name calling. Blackie was one, but Ms. Miller, who as I said, was sort of like extended grandmother, made it very clear to the class that we were all the same once you moved the top two layers. She was white, but she was just really genuinely concerned about my well-being. Ms. Miller also looked out for me because at the end of the school year, I didn't know she had put a note in my backpack to go home to my mother to give her an update in terms of how my day went. So, she was very supportive and over the years, I've tried to find a photo of her so when I share my experiences that I would certainly include her.

At the time, you didn't realize what a big deal this was. Since then, you've learned about Brown versus Board of Education. Since then, you've learned about massive resistance in Virginia. Talk about what you understand now about the historical significance of all of that.

Well, I learned that I've been called a hero over the years, and I constantly have reminded people that our parents were the heroes, the parents of the Charlottesville Twelve and the sacrifices that they made and the courageous stand that they took to allow our children to be a part of this movement. So it gets back to community, it gets back to parents, it get back to those that thought it was really important for our children to have a significant and good education. A lot of times, we get the headlines and we get a few of the lawyers and community leaders, but there was a lot of people behind the scene that really sacrificed, made a commitment to make the community and the world just a better place. And a lot of times, we look at the large things that people do and we overlook sometimes the small significant things that make a difference in an impact.

And how, if at all, would you say this experience shaped your life?

Well, it's not necessarily shaped my life per se, it has given me the opportunity to share my story and in sharing my story, what I always, always emphasized to students is for them to become trailblazers, for them to become history makers and give them some tools. My story is documented, my story has been told, but to give them an opportunity to share their story, their goodness and their greatness.

I've seen you in a number of classrooms through the years working primarily as Alex-Zan, imparting the students that they are powerful, that they're important, that they're respected. Talk a little bit about what that means to you and what you have been trying to teach young people through all of this.

Well, with what we are dealing with today, first and foremost, I've got a cartoon friend of mine named Cym. His message is just very timely in terms of closing your mouth and listening. And with all the noise and the social media and all the stuff that's going on, everybody wants to be heard, everybody have a voice and a lot of noise. It's to emphasize to them that it's okay to be still a minute, to respect and listen to others, that others have a viewpoint and that we are different. Another tool I've used over the years is called Let's RIDE, R-I-D-E. That's also relevant today. Ride is Respect, Individual, Differences and Expressions. And we know in life we cannot have a good, positive safe RIDE unless we acknowledge and respect differences. And when I look at the children of today, back then we highly regarded elders. And even today, recently a couple years ago, I presented to City Council of Charlottesville to have Fourth Street Northwest as Black History Pathway. And Black History Pathway is the only honorary Black history pathway in the country. It's really designed to highlight the achievements of African-Americans, particularly those that have come before us, the businesses, the educators, and just the many people that have made Charlottesville what it is today.

The goal of integration, of course, was to have Black students and white students educated together to remove some of the inequities, but some excellent Black educators didn't have a place in the integrated schools and many lost their careers. We also see today that Black students are still sometimes isolated in urban communities. White students sometimes go to school without Black or Brown children in their classrooms. What is the consequence? What is the after-effect of integration today?

It's hard to teach who you don't love. And I'm not saying that there's not love once integration took place, but there was certainly a connection between the African-American community, Black community, and the Black student at Jefferson, which was originally Jefferson High School became Jefferson Elementary, and there was a more unconditional love and caring for the student, for the well-being of the student. And I think what integration did supposedly for the best to further one's education, but I think many times the ball was dropped in terms of the care for the overall well-being of the student. So a lot of the Black students missed out because they may not have the teacher that was genuinely concerned about their well-being and also perhaps they didn't have the support system and stressing the importance of education regardless of what the school or the educational system provided. So, although it looked to a large degree that it was progress, it largely depends on who tells the story. I never went to an all Black school, but I know the residual and I know the feeling coming from Black educators, Black parents and the community.

What can you say about the racial divide in education today and do you have other concerns about the way kids are educated today?

One main element that happened or existed when I came up that is in question today is the parental involvement. Our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, everybody, as they would say it takes a village, everybody was involved about the growth of the family and the community and the well-being of the child. And we've lost that to an extent in terms of the breakdown of the family and not having family members and extended family members being there for the child. That's really no different as far as the child outside of a lot of the influences of social media inundated with stuff. But you did not have that support or you do not have that support network today that you had yesterday.

How fixable is that?

It's fixable, but it's one of the things which I share with audience today. When people say, "Well, what can we do," and my response is, 'What can you do starts with you.' So many people are waiting for other people to be the change maker or be the difference maker and it starts with you, the individual. What are you willing to sacrifice, what are you going to commit to do and be the change agent as opposed to waiting on others? The color of one's skin is still prevalent today and a lot of the disparities and a lot of things that take place is because of the color of one skin in terms of educational opportunities or just opportunities in general. My teacher, Ms. Miller, she didn't know anything about cultural responsible and all these other labels and titles that people use today and she certainly didn't have the title of a doctor. We just get caught up in these doctors and degrees and what have you. The bottom line is you either care or you don't care and the student on the receiving end or the person on the receiving end, they will know whether you care or not. When I do staff training with teachers, I would tell them on day one, your student will know whether you like them or not. They can feel it, as Mary Angelo said, "May not know or remember your name, but I know how you make me feel," and that has a lot to do with... That's a totally disconnect between the so-called educator and the student.

What is the legacy of Charles Alexander, trailblazer, member of the Charlottesville Twelve, author, motivational speaker, educator, et cetera, what is it that you want your legacy to be?

My legacy is to be known, to touch, move and inspire people, to make a difference in the lives of people, to make an impact and also just to help people along the way to become the best they can be and he did it with a smile.

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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