This Collegian UR podcast explores the memorialization of T. Justin Moore, investigating who Moore was and his impact on the segregation of Virginia public schools.
Hosted by Eileen Pomeroy. Edited and produced by Nina Joss and Eileen Pomeroy. Emma Davis and Olivia Diaz contributed to reporting. Music created by Nathan Burns. Podcast art created by Nolan Sykes and The Collegian.
EILEEN POMEROY: On April 23, 1951, a 16-year-old girl in Farmville, Virginia, named Barbara Johns wrote notes to the teachers at her all-Black public high school. The notes, “purportedly” forged in the principal’s name, instructed the teachers to gather their students for an assembly, according to an article in The New York Times. When the students and teachers arrived at the auditorium, Johns met them onstage with a speech that inspired the entire student body to follow her in a walkout to protest their school's conditions. The students went on strike for two weeks.
Although it is impossible to pinpoint a specific event that began the fight against school segregation in the United States, this protest was a prominent moment. It led to the Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board court case, which went on to become a part of the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. This well-known ruling officially ordered desegregation of schools across the country, kicking off a period of white resistance, Black resilience and civil rights victories.
Some of the actors involved in the Prince Edward County story are close to home for the University of Richmond community. Oliver Hill Sr., recognized on UR's campus through the Oliver Hill Scholars Program, was a lawyer for the plaintiffs on the case, fighting for school integration. Thomas Justin Moore, whom Moore Hall is named after, represented the school board.
Moore Hall is a first-year residence hall that houses 156 students; construction was completed in 1969, about 11 years after Moore's death and while legal and cultural resistance to school segregation still had heavy momentum. The hall is on the north side of campus, behind Mitchell-Freeman Hall. After Moore Hall was built, UR was able to stop using old World War II barracks as residence buildings, according to its website.
A plaque on the building says that it was named after Moore "in grateful recognition of his leadership, counsel and unselfish service to this university." Moore was a student at UR and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1908. He worked as a law professor from 1913 to 1926, served as a trustee from 1936 to 1958 and as a rector from 1951 to 1958.
As rector, Moore succeeded then-rector Douglas Southall Freeman, whom you can learn about in our recent episode of the Westham Project on Beneath the Surface: "A Look at Freeman." Additionally, Moore was a chairman of the board of deacons and president of the endowment fund at First Baptist Church, according to an article published by The Collegian in 1969. More information about the First Baptist Church can be found in another recent episode of the Westham Project on Beneath the Surface entitled, "Ryland, Religion and Slavery."
In continuation of our conversations about memorialization on campus, this episode was conceived with the intention to dive into Moore's life and legacy. However, Moore’s history, specifically his legal work, is a part of a larger story of school segregation in Virginia. Although we will touch upon Moore’s role in legal battles over segregation in schools, this episode will focus on school segregation in Virginia, and how it has shaped problems that Richmond still faces today.
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I’m Eileen Pomeroy and this is The Westham Project on Beneath the Surface, a Collegian podcast.
Before we dive in, it is important that we take a moment to acknowledge our inherent shortcomings in the creation of this podcast.
The Collegian is a predominantly white institution on campus, and we are aware that this lack of ethnic and racial diversity on our staff, specifically regarding our staff’s lack of Black representation, will have an effect on how we report this story.
As The Collegian strives to serve its stated mission of reporting the truth accurately and inclusively, we believe it is important to be transparent in this shortcoming and reemphasize our dedication to improving our organization in all areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Elvatrice Belsches, a historian, educator, documentary filmmaker and a co-founder of the Central Virginia African-American Genealogical and Historical society, has familial ties to Robert Russa Moton High School, where Johns led the walkout protest in 1951.
ELVATRICE BELSCHES: My father taught at R.R. Moton High School from 1951 until 1955.
POMEROY: Both of Belsches' parents were educators who were in high school during what she calls the "precipice of the civil rights in education," when attorneys fought for equal pay for Black and white teachers. These equalization cases, as she calls them, were led by the Virginia Teachers Association in tandem with the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, she said. These cases helped to "pave the road to Brown" by providing experience for lawyers who would go on to become famous civil rights attorneys in cases such as Davis v. County School Board.
When he became a teacher, Belsches' father witnessed the movement for civil rights in education from a new perspective. He saw students preparing for the protest led by Johns.
BELSCHES: My father was Barbara Johns' homeroom teacher and algebra teacher.
The thing that I take away from our conversations is that she was very forceful in what she believed in because, you know, my father actually discovered them making the placards. He never used the term poster, but he actually caught them making the placards in the back of his classroom.
POMEROY: In contrast to the nearby all-white school, Moton had no gymnasium, cafeteria, infirmary or teachers' restrooms. Moton was also overcrowded. It was the only Black high school in the county, holding about three times the number of students that it was built for, Belsches said.
BELSCHES: Things were pretty tough in terms of the conditions they were already relegated to, to getting really worn out books because those books were utilized first at the white high schools in Prince Edward County, namely Prince Edward High School and Worsham High School. And as you can imagine, if a building was built for maybe a hundred, a hundred and fifty people, at four fifty, you're bursting at the seams for the most part.
And so what they did was over the course of things, they built these three temporary buildings and they were called by teachers and the students, "the tar paper shacks," because of the actual material that they were constructed with. You know, my dad talks about the fact or always drilled to me, drilled into me the fact that when it rained, for example, it just came straight into the classrooms. So the kids have had to put up umbrellas while in class.
POMEROY: There were so many students that teachers taught classes on school buses and in the auditorium, Belsches said.
BELSCHES: And so these are the things that they were dealing with and they had been lobbying the principal, the students, the parents [and] so on and so forth. They had been lobbying for years for a new school and the promises ring hollow. And so that's where we, that's where we were. They were, I should say, when that walkout occurred April 23, 1951. It gives you some of the background of how desperate the situation was.
POMEROY: These conditions in Black schools were not unusual in the 20th century. The "separate but equal" doctrine supported by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling defended the practice of racial segregation in public facilities, including schools. However, educational setups that were "separate but equal" drastically favored white students in funding, facilities, textbooks and supplies.
When Johns initiated a school walkout to protest these unequal conditions, she and the other student organizers reached out to the law firm of Oliver Hill Sr. and Spottswood Robinson III to tell them about their protest and ask for legal support, Belsches said.
BELSCHES: And at that time, what the students wanted was a new school. But Hill and his partners said, “If we take the case, what we're going to go for is integration of the schools, not just simply a new school, you see.” And so the wheels started turning at that point and the kids did return to school.
Now, what Prince Edward did [to] try to thwart any other actions is: They built a new school probably within, I don't know, a couple of years or so. And but at that point, it was -- this was a snowball starting to gain in size, if you will.
POMEROY: In May 1951, Hill and Robinson filed suit on behalf of 117 students against Prince Edward County School Board, according to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. On the other side of the case, the school district was represented by Moore along with Archibald Robertson, John Riley and Moore’s son, T. Justin Moore Jr.
Moore worked on many cases throughout his career and was the president of the Virginia Bar Association from 1953-1954.
BELSCHES: My belief is, yes, he was respected for his professional abilities. If that were not so, he wouldn't have been selected for such an important case.
POMEROY: According to Belsches, the fact that Moore was chosen for the Prince Edward County case shows that he was an esteemed lawyer. Although it's clear that Moore was respected in the legal field, she said she did not know his personal perspectives on the cases he argued.
BELSCHES: You are going down a slippery slope when you perhaps vilify someone based on who they defend.
And you cannot judge attorneys always for who they represent. But I would look at what a person does, you know even what a person does sometimes is different than what they say, you see. We call that, what, cognitive dissonance. And so I would want to know personally, you know, perhaps what his views were. What did he do and that type of thing?
There are accounts of the arguments Moore used during the Davis v. County School Board case, however. A Richmond Times-Dispatch article from January 1952 documents that during cross-examination in the case, Moore brought up interracial marriage. After an expert spoke about school segregation leading to limited knowledge, Moore asked whether the expert’s “philosophy would not logically carry over to an approval of mixed marriages.”
In another Times-Dispatch article from the following year, 1953, Moore “contended that the fourteenth amendment could not be construed to include the practice of segregation in public schools.” The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” Moore argued that school segregation did not violate citizens’ equal protection.
Some accounts offer further insight into how Moore may have personally felt about school segregation.
At a 1955 federal court hearing about segregation in Prince Edward County, for example, the Times-Dispatch wrote that Moore was distressed to know that attorneys of the NAACP wanted to "take the children and shuffle them together like cards." At this hearing, Moore also said that possible court failure to grant permission for segregated schools “would be like a sword hanging over their heads.” Hill responded, "This talk about all we are interested in is shuffling of children like a bunch of cards is nonsense," according to the Times-Dispatch.
During the Davis v. County School Board case, Moore was simultaneously serving as rector here at UR.
UR's Race and Racism project includes a letter written in 1955 from Moore to Homer A. Holt, a lawyer and former governor of West Virginia. The Association of American Law Schools had released a discrimination report and asked presidents of Southern universities to meet to discuss complying with their resolution for anti-discrimination policies. According to an article published in the Richmond-Times Dispatch on August 25, 1955, a special committee of the association had been studying ways of enforcing a new rule that would make an objective of the association "equal opportunities without regard to race or color."
In his letter to Holt, Moore asked for help in beating the resolution, and noted how universities could subvert it.
According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch article, Moore told a reporter that he and the dean of UR's law school, William T. Muse, took the position that the Law School Association could not properly insist that a law school that is not publicly supported must accept Black students.
At the time of this quote, UR had no Black students, according to the article.
Dominique Harrington is a former fellow of the Race and Racism project, who graduated from UR in 2019 and was an Oliver Hill scholar. The Oliver Hill scholarship is academically competitive and geared toward students who are community-driven, according to UR’s website. Scholars participate in culturally-stimulating activities, some of which involve the African American community, according to the website. Harrington compared the memorialization of Moore to that of Oliver Hill, both of whom she called “figures integral to the history of the university.”
DOMINIQUE HARRINGTON: But one has a building named after them and one has a scholarship name. And I think that, like I said, I think that institutions and communities have a choice to make about what they value and what they want to kind of put out to the world as 'This who we are as an institution.' And I think that a part of that comes with memorialization and acknowledgment of history, but also continuing to support the marginalized today.
I think that we obviously know who was on the right side of that case...and I think it's OK as an institution to be like, you know what, we were wrong.
POMEROY: Oliver Hill was born in Jackson Ward in 1907. He was a mentee of Charles Hamilton Houston, a famed civil rights lawyer and professor who made it his mission to dismantle the "separate but equal" doctrine set forth by Plessy v. Ferguson, according to Belsches.
After graduating from Howard Law School in 1933, Hill worked as part of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund with other lawyers, including the celebrated Thurgood Marshall. They worked to file hundreds of cases throughout the south to fight discrimination, and were already, “battle tested by the time they got to Davis v. Prince Edward,” Belsches said. For his work fighting for civil rights throughout his career, Hill received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1999.
POMEROY: The plaintiffs' request in the Davis v. County School Board case was for the state law requiring segregation in schools in Virginia to be eliminated. Their request was struck down unanimously by a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court. In their rejection, they stated: "We have found no hurt or harm to either race," according to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site website.
The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952. The Supreme Court consolidated Davis v. County School Board with five other cases from across the country, all of which questioned school segregation. Together, these cases were called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka -- and that case resulted in the historic court ruling that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Moore characterized the May 17 decision as an “unlawful assumption of judicial powers,” according to a 1954 Times-Dispatch article.
Moore said that school segregation cases were “merely another step in the national crusade now under way by certain powerful minority groups to bring [Black people] to a position of social and interracial equality … next will come cases aimed at obtaining social and political equality with respect to housing, local transportation, hotels, restuarants and recreation facilities, and finally the attack will be made on the miscegenation statues forbidding intermarriage in more than half the States in the Union,” according to the article. The word "miscegenation" refers to the mixing of races, and often refers to laws in the U.S. that prohibited interracial marriage.
But after the Brown v. Board ruling, there was not immediate change because many people resisted it, Belsches said.
BELSCHES: Now, the court really didn't get specific about how this dismantling of segregation was to be done as it relates to education. And so people dragged their feet and they started the Massive Resistance and a lot of creative things to try to thwart the spirit of the decision.
POMEROY: This led to the second, lesser-known Brown case, or Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (2). In this second case, the Supreme Court justices said that the decision ruled in Brown (1) should be carried out with “all deliberate speed” and that solutions to school segregation needed to be implemented at the local level, according to Oyez, an online law project from Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.
BELSCHES: But still, people devise really creative ways locally, countywide and at the state level to skirt the spirit of the law.
POMEROY: Records show that Moore espoused that mindset. He believed segregation needed to be addressed on a local level, and he was in favor of slowing the timeline for integration.
In a legal brief to the Supreme Court, Moore and attorney-general of Virginia, J. Lindsay Almond Jr., asked for the court to not give a set time limit for ending segregation. They wrote, "Local officials should not be permitted to drag their feet, but they should not be asked to run so fast that destruction results," according to a Times-Dispatch article from November 1954.
Moore went further to say that although they must conform with the Brown v. Board decision, they must “allow for the deep conviction of the majority of people in Virginia … that indiscriminate racial intermixture is harmful,” according to an August 1954 Times-Dispatch article. Moore added that it was “the duty and responsibility of thinking citizens to do all that is possible to minimize the impact of the decision in Virginia with in all respects accepting the result of the law.”
POMEROY: The vagueness of the Brown (2) ruling allowed opponents of integration to delay the process. This meant that local officials were able to implement a variety of disingenuous plans that continued for many years after the Supreme Court ruled against segregation.
Virginia was at the forefront of the battle against school integration, and a strategy of massive resistance was led by former Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., who was determined to keep schools segregated. Massive resistance took the form of a set of laws passed in 1956 with the intent to keep schools segregated, according to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
BELSCHES: Senator Harry Byrd and others said, you know, “This is -- we're not going to have integration in the South and we're going to fight this with every means that we can pull pull up” with local decision laws that were implemented at both the local and state levels. And so sometimes you hear it mentioned in regards to the Southern manifesto and you'll hear it as the massive resistance.
POMEROY: During this period of resistance, white Prince Edward County officials decided to close their schools rather than integrate them. The public schools were closed from 1959 to 1964, leaving thousands of students, mostly Black students, to attend makeshift schools in church basements, travel out of state to attend Quaker schools, or go without an education for five years, according to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
BELSCHES: But you think about the fact you've got a locale that would rather shut down the entire school system than integrate school. So it was just that drastic.
But they weren't the only ones to close the schools. It happened in a much shorter time period, I believe, in Warren County and also in Charlottesville and Norfolk too. And because even at the level of the state, they threatened to cut off state funds to schools that integrated. And so you had all of these impediments that thwarted the spirit of the law. And so, yes, it was a protracted thing. And lots of people suffered during that period, particularly when they closed the schools.
POMEROY: In 1964, the Supreme Court forced the schools of Prince Edward County to reopen in the Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County case.
Because the case declared that the closure of schools in order to prevent integration was unconstitutional, officials across the state continued using less obvious methods to keep schools segregated.
Richmond city schools relied on these less-obvious methods from the start and never closed during the period of other school closures.
KATHY MENDES: My name is Kathy Mendes. I’m a policy analyst at the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.
I went to Virginia public schools my whole life and then also a public university, and I got really interested in education policy at VCU.
POMEROY: The Commonwealth Institute is an organization that works in Virginia to provide information and analyses of economic issues, with particular attention to the impacts on low- and moderate-income people, according to their website. Recently, Mendes and her colleagues released a report on the historical factors and present-day problems of school segregation in Richmond. She spoke about the commonly-held belief that school segregation ended after Brown v. Board.
MENDES: I think that tends to be the sort of mainstream sort of misconception. I think there are plenty of people that understand that that's not the case, right? There's plenty of Black people who were alive during the Prince Edward case, who have memory of it, who experienced it so you don't need to convince people of that necessarily. But in schools today, we're sort of taught that that ended with Brown v. Board. You know, “separate isn't equal” and that was that. But we know from my research that that's not true and that segregation is still an issue.
POMEROY: After the Griffin case reopened schools across the state in 1964, many of the other laws set forth by Sen. Byrd's massive resistance plan were still in play.
MENDES: And so some examples of things put in place at that time are pupil placement boards which assigned specific students to specific schools, tuition grants, which are also known as vouchers given to white students, any white student that would find themselves in an integrated school or school attempting to integrate so that they could attend either private schools or public schools in a nearby locality, and the creation of segregation academies, which were those white private schools that were created to circumvent integration. So these are all ways that Virginia, the state of Virginia, allowed white families to circumvent desegregation orders
POMEROY: Some schools also attempted to integrate with "freedom of choice" plans that allowed students to choose the school they attended. But in reality, these plans led to little integration, as they were designed by people who did not actually want to achieve integration. Under this plan in New Kent County, no white students transferred to Black schools, while few Black students were able to attend the overwhelmingly white schools, according to Oyez.
In 1968, the Supreme Court case Green v. County School Board of New Kent County addressed the failures, or rather successes, of these insincere plans that tokenized the few students of color who were able to attend white schools, according to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. This case was the "most important school desegregation case since Brown," according to the museum, and in it, "the court shifted its concern to ensure racial balance in schools.”
The decision of the Green case resulted in so-called “Green” factors being used to determine whether a desegregation plan was acceptable, including the ratio of black to white students and faculty, and absolute equality in facilities, transportation and extracurricular activities. Freedom-of-choice plans, whether in Virginia or elsewhere, did not meet the Court's new standards.
The Green ruling hastened the rate of desegregation, but due to white flight to suburban areas, integration could still not be achieved without busing, according to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Busing was important because it addressed the barriers to school integration caused by housing segregation in Richmond. Without busing, students could not attend schools in other parts of the city.
According to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, “This set the stage for a sharp white backlash against social engineering by the judiciary and a strengthening of conservative political opinion.”
POMEROY: Robert Merhige Jr. was one of the most influential trial judges in American history because of the central role he played in desegregation busing and school integration cases. He was the U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia from 1967 to 1986. Merhige, an alumnus of T. C. Williams School of Law at UR, was based in Richmond but presided over cases including those regarding the contraceptive Dalkon Shield that caused infertility, the kepone spill in the James River and the University of Virginia’s admittance of women, all of which had effects far beyond Richmond and set a variety of legal precedents for certain issues and types of cases.
Ronald Bacigal, formerly a law professor at UR, conducted over a year of interviews with Merhige and wrote a biography of him titled "May it Please the Court." This book, published in 1992, highlights Merhige's role in Virginia during the integration period.
RONALD BACIGAL: Finally, when the U.S. Supreme Court said time for all deliberate speed is ended, it's time to move forward, they shifted from simply not having state-enforced segregation into desegregation and affirmative things like integrating with busses. So it fell basically to Merhige to start coming up with a plan so that we would now have integrated schools, which some 20 years after Brown v. Board, still didn't exist. So he was charged with working out, 'How are we going to now have affirmative integration versus simply not state approved segregation?'
POMEROY: Judge Theodore Dalton, the U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Virginia, disqualified himself from many integration cases due to his former involvement with the state political structure, according to Bacigal's book. He had been a member of the state legislature and was a twice-defeated candidate for governor, so he felt it would be inappropriate for him to rule on school cases, the book said. Due to this excusal, Merhige ended up taking many of Dalton's cases.
BACIGAL: Actually, he wound up being responsible for almost all the integration cases in the state of Virginia.
POMEROY: In a case called Bradley v. Richmond School Board, which Merhige inherited when he began his position, Merhige decided to implement a busing program that would transport students between schools in Black and white neighborhoods.
Unlike plans that simply proposed creating neighborhood schools, such as a plan brought forth by the Richmond School Board in 1970, Merhige's plan recognized that the only way to achieve true racial integration was to provide busing between racially segregated neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were segregated as a result of discriminatory policies such as redlining.
Although Merhige recognized that this initial busing plan was not extensive enough to be constitutionally adequate, he defended it as a first step in actively desegregating schools, according to Bacigal's book.
Merhige’s interim plan infuriated parents and further spurred white flight out of the city. White flight was a trend seen across the country, and in the city of Richmond, the population went from 57% white in 1954 to 88% Black in 35 years as white families moved to the suburbs, according to Robert Pratt, historian and author of “The Color of Their Skin: Education and Race in Richmond, Virginia, 1954-89.”
White parents took measures to get their children into majority-white schools of Richmond’s neighboring counties, either by enrolling them in private schools or using methods such as temporary guardianship, establishing other addresses or even filing false addresses, according to Pratt and Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
In 1971, Merhige saw that his interim busing plan was still not effective enough to bring integration due to residential segregation, and realized that he needed to extend the plan to include free citywide transportation and further student and faculty reassignments, according to Pratt.
Merhige proposed an adaptation to the interim plan, which would extend busing and also merge majority-Black Richmond city schools with the predominantly white Henrico and Chesterfield school systems, according to Pratt.
Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971 was a Supreme Court case that upheld busing as a method to achieve integration, according to Bacigal's book. To Merhige, this ruling from the Court justified his busing plan.
On June 6, 1972, Merhige's new plan went to the Fourth Circuit Court.
BACIGAL: The Fourth Circuit overruled him, saying that was improper, that he could not order busing across jurisdictional lines like the city and the county. That was then appealed to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court split four to four, which meant the lower court decision for the Fourth Circuit remained in effect. So ultimately, Judge Merhige was reversed. But he never got a definitive ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.
POMEROY: According to Bacigal's book, “The true basis for reversal may have been the budgeting and financial problems of implementing consolidation, problems which the Court said ‘boggle the mind.’”
BACIGAL: He was the only judge to move across school lines saying 'You've got to combine the Richmond city schools with the surrounding county schools.' And as I said, he took it further than any other judge in the country did, went to the U.S. Supreme Court and they split four to four over his decision.
Justice Powell was the fifth justice who recused himself because he had been chairman of the school board in Richmond.
About six months after Merhige’s busing plan was reversed, a Fourth Circuit judge told Merhige off the record that his busing plan may have been a good idea after all, Bacigal said.
POMEROY: Looking back at his busing plan, Merhige said: “I ordered busing for the city because I honestly believed that, under the circumstances, it was the only way to have a thoroughly integrated system. I did what I did not only because it was the law, but because it was right.”
However, his decisions angered the community and caused severe backlash that extended into his personal life.
BACIGAL: Most of Virginia just thought he was the absolute worst possible thing. I know you probably have heard that his dog was shot. His guest house was burned down. They had to, he and his family had to constantly have marshals there to protect them. They were worried about car bombs, everything else. I mean, his his life was a pure hell.
POMEROY: In Bacigal's biography of Merhige, he includes a quote in which Merhige explains the hardships his family faced from those opposing his decisions. In addition to their dog being shot and the fire at the guest house where his 75-year-old mother-in-law lived, he and his family received constant death threats. Merhige said, "Every week or so we received a cryptic letter warning that our eleven-year-old son Mark would never live to see age twenty-one."
Despite these threats, Merhige's son, Mark, is still alive today.
MARK MERHIGE: I'm Mark Merhige, Mark Renald Merhige Sr. I am the son of Robert R. Merhige Jr., who's an alum of T.C. Williams.
POMEROY: As a young boy, Mark remembers how his father's prominence changed his day-to-day life, with protection from U.S. Marshals and other extra security measures.
MERHIGE: So I would have been 11 or 12 years old. I am not sure, quite frankly, I had a complete grasp of the...Certainly, I didn't have a grasp of the nuances of the cases. I probably didn't have a grasp, complete grasp of the largesse of the whole thing. But, you know, you didn't have to be a genius to realize there were men with guns in your house, and we brought in massive spotlights from City Stadium and our home, our property was lit up like a ball field every night, you know, blackout curtains. So you sort of understood the gravity of that situation. Did an 11- or 12-year-old mind take it to the next steps? You know, the rest of the, you know, societal impacts? Probably not.
POMEROY: Mark said that, even as a kid, he noticed public opposition to his father's decisions.
MERHIGE: There [was] certainly enough unpleasantness out and about to be impactful, even to a kid, you know, if if I was with my dad, you know, he was a recognizable figure to many and things would be said and it wasn't always pleasant. You become pretty aware of little things, too, like one of the symbols of segregation or at least an anti-busing symbol was a bumper sticker with a little red schoolhouse, if I recall. And I certainly got to a point where if I'd be with buddies and we'd be going somewhere, whether it was the Hardee's or the mall. I'd be checking out the cars to see how many of those little red Schoolhouse bumper stickers I saw when I went in to kind of get a sense, you know, know your audience, so to speak.
POMEROY: This opposition escalated past comments and bumper stickers when protestors of Merhige's decisions became violent.
MERHIGE: You have a tendency to begin to try to figure out the good guys, bad guys, what what side of this am I on? You know, you're on one side by default as as your family, but you process things a little bit. And to see the actions of the other side. It wasn't hard even for my tiny brain to figure out. For the most part, there were some pretty nasty people on the other side of that issue, if they were shooting your dog and burning your house. And we'd watch protests come up and down our road on Sundays and there were guys in Nazi helmets and there were swastikas and Confederate battle flags. And, you know, again, it didn't take a genius to figure out who was who and what you were dealing with. Now, having said that, those were the people that were doing the nasty stuff. There were plenty of people that didn't want their child to get on a bus and go for three hours. And, you know, I got that, too. Dad got that, too. You're dealing with someone's child. This is very, very personal stuff. And they may not have been racists. They just wanted to go to their neighborhood school. That was probably the exception, however.
POMEROY: Bacigal explained the extreme measures that Merhige resorted to in order to protect his family and focus on his job.
BACIGAL: Things are so bad at one point that he sent his wife and child out of the country because he said, 'I need to do this job and I can't do this if I'm worried about your safety.' So they left the country for a while during some of the most intense litigation.
POMEROY: Despite the calamity Merhige faced during the busing litigation, Mark said that his dad loved his job. He hesitated to use the word 'activist' to define his father's work, but he said that he was creative. In addition, Mark noted how his dad viewed other lawyers. He said that Merhige held respect for anyone who was a member of the bar, despite the clients they worked for.
MERHIGE: He had an incredible respect for anyone who was a member of the bar. And in his mind, and as it's supposed to be, everyone that comes before a judge is seeking justice in the end, correct? Even in civil suits, there's not a right side and a wrong side, there are two sides. Then the judge has to decide which one's argument fits the Constitution, and hence, a decision. But, you know, I don't think he would ever, and certainly never in front of me, would have talked about one one side or one lawyer being the right guy and the wrong guy. They were lawyers and that was great. And they were working as hard as they could for their client, and he respected that, you know, like nothing else.
They were all brothers in the law at the end of the day.
POMEROY: When it came to Merhige’s own work, the concept of right and wrong was something he had to deal with both professionally and personally. In Merhige’s decisions about integration, Bacigal said that Merhige faced this internal conflict often.
BACIGAL: You know, judges are supposed to be lawyers and follow the law. Judges are also human beings. And sometimes there's a terrible conflict between, 'Do I sacrifice my personal beliefs in order to do what the law demands, or do I have to temper the letter of the law by saying, but fundamentally, this is the correct moral thing to do?' And I think there are cases where judges have to face that, and Merhige faced that in this dealing with school integration.
POMEROY: If Merhige’s busing plan had been supported and implemented, schools in Richmond and across the country might look far different today, Mark said. But Merhige’s plan was overturned. Today, Richmond schools have a variety of problems stemming from segregation.
White flight from the city of Richmond led to racial and socioeconomic resegregation, ultimately contributing to disproportionate educational standards among schools. With wealthier families leaving the city, the quality of city schools declined at alarming rates, and curriculum had to be revised to better teach the students of low-income families, Pratt wrote.
MENDES: The ‘80s were pretty much the height of integration policies working to some extent, and then after that you got sort of resegregating of schools. And at that point, after that, the work on that sort of integration policies and diversity policies lost steam.
And it's really only been, in my understanding, the past couple of decades is where it has sort of picked up some steam again. And I'm not entirely sure for the reason for that, but I would have to imagine it's that people are noticing that these policies weren't working as intended, or actually maybe they are working as intended, right, that the policies were meant to work and so they did work and also tools were taken away from advocates in order to make those policies work.
POMEROY: True integration probably hasn't been achieved anywhere, Mendes said. To this day, Richmond public schools are segregated and underfunded. Remedying these issues remains at the forefront of political debate.
According to Mendes’ report for The Commonwealth Institute, “The average Black student attends a school where half of the students are economically disadvantaged and the average Latinx student attends a school where almost half (46%) are economically disadvantaged. The average white student attends a school where just over one-third (36%) of students are economically disadvantaged."
Schools with students who live in poverty face challenges such as deteriorating buildings, which is a widespread problem in many schools in the Richmond city school district. Superintendent Jason Kamras told the Washington Post that some of the buildings in his district are in “borderline criminal” conditions.
Richmond Public Schools have long struggled with low graduation rates. The RPS graduation rate was 71.6% in spring 2018, compared to the statewide on-time graduation rate of 91.6%, according to an article by WRIC8. The district’s dropout rate, which was 23.2% in the 2019-20 school year, was the highest in the state. According to the WRIC8 article, “...nearly 65% of Latino students and more than 61% of English learners dropped out in the 2019-2020 school year.”
MENDES: Our analysis showed that there are increasing levels of segregation in Virginia schools by our measures over the last 15 years. Another reason we wanted to do this is because the issue of school segregation, I think, seems to people to be something that lives in the past primarily.
POMEROY: The schools in Richmond's metropolitan area remain very segregated. According to Mendes' report, Black students make up 97% of the student body at Fairfield Court Elementary School, 96% at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and 95% at Armstrong High School, all in the city. Meanwhile in Chesterfield County, Black students make up 1% of the student body at Bettie Weaver Elementary School, 8% at Midlothian Middle School and 10% at Midlothian High School, according to the report.
The coronavirus pandemic exacerbates already existing disparities in RPS education. Gov. Ralph Northam said that Virginia schools should have in-person learning options by March 15. Yet, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras told the school board that some Richmond public schools would not be able to meet CDC safety guidelines for in-person learning during the current academic year, according to a Feb. 16 school board meeting. Kamras said the air quality in many school buildings was inadequate, according to the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism. In Henrico County, some students began in-person learning on Feb. 22. In-person learning for four days each week will be available to all Henrico County public school students by March 15.
Housing segregation continues as well, with historically redlined neighborhoods today having higher rates of chronic disease that are risk factors for COVID-19, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s report on Redlining and Neighborhood Health. Which school a student attends is typically based on where that student lives, so continued disinvestment in minority neighborhoods compounds issues schools are facing.
MENDES: It's going to take explicitly antiracist policy choices to have any kind of impact. Colorblind policies will not address this issue because they were not colorblind in origin. And it's really the responsibility of the state and the localities to be doing this, right, especially given our past.
POMEROY: Mendes' report outlines four main policy recommendations to combat segregation and improve education in Virginia.
MENDES: So we recommend a few different things in a few different areas. The first is race conscious, voluntary, local and regional integration policies that prioritize equity and diverse learning environments.
The second is including diversity as a measure of school quality in the process of accrediting schools. So this could incentivize the localities to work towards diverse schools, right?
A third is fair funding, of course. So we talk about school finance all the time. Primarily, fully funding the Board of Education's revised standards of quality, so getting resources to students that need them the most, bringing crucial resources to schools like staffing counselors, mental health professionals, and those standards of quality would also create an equity fund. So that would just take into account student socioeconomic status when giving money to local divisions through the school funding formula. And lastly, affordable housing policy right to help sever the link between housing segregation and education segregation, and that could look like reform around housing choice vouchers, increased state and local [down] payment assistance in the home buying process, among other things.
The details of Moore’s personal life are difficult to delineate because of a lack of family members of Moore who are still alive and willing to speak. His grandson, T. Justin Moore III, and former law firm, Hunton Andrews Kurth, did not respond to requests for comment.
The legacy of Moore’s son, T. Justin Moore Jr., is also complex, as he fought for and against racial divisions at different points in his life.
Moore Jr. practiced law at his father’s law firm, today known as Hunton Andrews Kurth. After graduating from UVA Law in 1950, he joined his father as a defense attorney for the Davis v. County School Board case. In 1956, he became assistant general counsel for Virginia Electric & Power Co, according to his obituary by Princeton University. He was also known for serving as chairman of Dominion Resources. Moore Jr. died in 1999.
In speaking about Moore Sr., Belsches noted the legacy of his family.
BELSCHES: The legacy, the legacy of his family, who they've done some wonderful things to reach out to people, you know, several of the subsequent generations.
POMEROY: In 1982, Moore Jr. cofounded Richmond Renaissance, an organization that sought to bridge racial divides in Richmond through economic development. Through the organization, Moore Jr. helped to create the Sixth Street Marketplace, a pedestrian mall area in downtown Richmond, according to his New York Times obituary.
The obituary notes: “Acting on Mr. Moore's idea, the group built a bridge over Broad Street as a symbolic as well as practical way of bringing the black and white areas of the city together.”
The organization also helped revitalize downtown Richmond in areas such as the Jackson Ward neighborhood, a historically Black area, according to VCU archives. The neighborhood faced challenges from urban renewal policies and the development of I-95 in the 1950s.
Moore Jr. was awarded the Richmond First award in 1983 in recognition of his service in the community and was recognized by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities at their Richmond Chapter Humanitarian Awards Dinner in 1984. His role in the Prince Edward County case was not included in either the Princeton or Times obituaries.
T. Justin Moore III, Moore Jr.'s son, followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He practiced at Hunton Andrews Kurth after graduating from Princeton University and the University of Virginia School of Law, and now runs his own private practice, according to his LinkedIn.
Belsches also spoke of the community outreach of Hunton Andrews Kurth.
BELSCHES: There's a lot of incredible community work in educating folks and a lot of pro bono work and that type of thing.
POMEROY: Hunton Andrews Kurth has had an office for pro bono work in the Church Hill neighborhood since 1990, where services in family law, housing and real estate and guardianships are offered to those who are economically disadvantaged, according to its website.
Like others memorialized on campus, Moore has a complex story. We want to reiterate that this episode is about more than just him. It is also about segregation — a topic with a long history in Richmond, and one that Moore was deeply involved in. Moore's involvement with the Davis v. County School Board case sheds light on structural institutions that perpetuated racism in public schools. Individuals, white communities and legal systems all worked together to uphold racial segregation.
The issue of segregation in Richmond schools and others across the state remains, even almost 70 years after Brown v. Board and events like those in Prince Edward County.
Thank you for listening to Beneath the Surface, a Collegian podcast.
This episode was narrated by me, Eileen Pomeroy.
This episode was written and reported by Nina Joss and me.
Additional reporting was provided by Emma Davis and Olivia Diaz.
The episode was edited by Nina Joss and Jackie Llanos.
And our music, as always, was provided by the amazing Nathan Burns.
Additional sources that contributed to our reporting:
May It Please the Court: A Biography of Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr. By Ronald J. Bacigal. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, Inc. 1992.
The Color of Their Skin: Education and Race in Richmond, Virginia, 1954-89. By Robert A. Pratt. Charlottesville, Va: University Press of Virginia. 1993.
The Judge. Directed and produced by Robert Griffith. Executive produced by Allen Calderaro. 2021.
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