Sunday, February 19, 2012

Warren County High School and Massive Resistance

Warren Co. High School and Massive Resistance Marker J-22Marker No. J-22
Warren County, Virginia

Marker Text: Warren County High School, a Public Works Administrative project, was constructed in 1940. In 1958, the local NAACP chapter, lead by James W. Kilby, won a federal suit against the Warren County School Board to admit African Americans for the first time, in response, Gov. James Lindsay Almond Jr. ordered it closed in Sept. 1958, the first school in Virginia shut down under the state's Massive Resistance strategy. Following the 1959 Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruling that Massive Resistance was unconstitutional, a U.S. Circuit Court ordered it reopened. On 18 Feb. 1959, 23 African American students walked up this hill and integrated the school.

Location: Close to street address, 240 Luray Avenue, Front Royal, VA in front of the Warren County Middle School, which is the former high school mentioned in the marker. Erected by the Department of Historic Resources in 2010

Warren Co. High School & Massive Resistance Marker in front of High School

Former Warren Co. High School is on the hill and was recently remodeled for use as the Middle School.

  Today's marker is a recent addition to Virginia State Historical Markers, it was dedicated in Front Royal, VA on June 8, 2011. I attended the dedication of this marker and is the first and only dedication I have attended so far. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell recently issued a certificate of recognition to Warren County's survivors of Massive Resistance. On Saturday, an event was held at the Warren Heritage Society with the presentation of the legal document proclaiming Feb. 18, “Survivors of Massive Resistance Day” by Gov. McDowell.

  What I found interesting about this marker is that I got to know one of the individuals mentioned in the marker. The Rev. James M. Kilby was one of the 23 African American students who attended Warren County High School on Feb. 18, 1959, when the school was reopened for integration. Kilby says the day he and other students walked up the hill to the school was a traumatic one. "There were people spitting on you, calling you names, wanting to kill you," he said in an interview with the Northern Virginia Daily in a Feb. 17 article. Kilby hopes this will recognize the community's black history so "the future generations won't forget."

Warren Co. High School & Massive Resistance Marker Dedication Ceremony

Photo during the dedication ceremony of the marker on June 8, 2011.

  The story of school integration in the U.S. is a sad moment in American history, which gained momentum with the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 which states that separate school facilities are inherently unequal and orders school integration. The court decision was not popular throughout the U.S. but in the southern states it took on an often more dramatic response with mob rule, violence and political maneuvers.

  I remember seeing photos and film reports of the integration of the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas with the “Little Rock Nine” who were protected by paratroopers dispatched by President Dwight Eisenhower in the fall of 1957. I remember while going to college in Arkansas, a friend took me to Little Rock to show me around the city and I wanted to go and see Central High School for myself, since I had heard so much about it.

Unveiling of the Warren Co. High School & Massive Resistance Marker

Unveiling of the marker by some of the students mentioned by the marker. Click any photo to enlarge.

  "Massive resistance," a term coined by U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, was designed to maintain segregated schools and perpetuate the power of the political machine he ruled over in Virginia that was being threatened by new political opposition. Massive Resistance was consistent with Byrd's anger at the federal government's intruding on the affairs of Virginia. In Virginia, Byrd pushed for the creation of the school-closing laws in 1956 during a special session of the assembly and supported Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr. in closing schools when courts ordered their integration. Even after the courts overturned Virginia's laws, Senator Byrd insisted that other obstructive measures be adopted.

  On September 15, 1958, Governor Almond closed the Warren County High School, the first school held in violation of his statewide mandate against desegregation. The inevitable collision of Massive Resistance with the federal courts came shortly after the closing of the high school when James W. Kilby (Rev. Kilby's father) lead the local NAACP chapter in filing suit in the federal courts. Federal district court Judge John Paul ordered African American students admitted to Warren County High School in Front Royal, and to a high school and elementary school in Charlottesville.

Former students posing in front of the marker after ceremony.

Photo of some of the students posing with the marker after the ceremony. Click any photo to enlarge.

  The Virginia General Assembly promptly repealed the compulsory school attendance law, making the operating of public schools a matter of local choice. But a simultaneous federal court verdict against the school-closing law based on the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment could not be evaded. Speaking to the General Assembly a few weeks later, Governor J. Lindsay Almond conceded defeat. Beginning on February 2, 1959, a few courageous African American students integrated the schools that had been closed. Still, hardly any African American students in Virginia attended integrated schools.

  The following is a list of the names of the Warren County 23.

Ann Rhodes Baltimore
Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin
Joyce Henderson Banks
Louise Dean*
Suetta Dean Freeman
Cuetta Grier*
Frank Grier*
Fay Coleman Hoes
Barbara Jackson*
John Jackson*
Rebecca Fletcher Johnson
James M. Kilby
John F. Kilby
Charles Lewis
Elizabeth Dean Mitchell*
Archie Pines*
Matthew Pines
Dorothy Rhodes
Delores Coleman Sanford
Geraldine Rhodes Smith
Gwendolyn Baltimore Smith
Stephen Travis*
Mary Coleman Washington

Eight of the 23 were deceased at the time of the dedication of the marker, indicated by *

I have also contributed photos about this marker and the dedication to The Historical Markers Database web site and has additional and higher resolution photos.


  1. Wonderful article. I moved to Front Royal in-2003 with my husband. I visited the Warren County Archives to learn about my new community but mostly got Civil War stories. Then I happened to drop in there again on Sept 15, 2008, precisely 50 years after the WCHS closing, and accidentally learned the school's ignoble place in history. I'm glad the historic marker was erected to recognize the schism in the community and the bravery of the 23 students who first integrated or public school here. I'm sorry they bear those scars. Their bravery and forbearance helped our society evolve.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this remembrance. Racist policies and attitudes continue to be a very big problem in Warren County. The KKK and Nazi ideologies are making their appearance on the walls of classrooms and hallways.