From Massive Resistance to School Desegregation
Massive Resistance in Virginia
Beginning in 1956 to 1959, Virginia established a policy known as Massive Resistance in response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that desegregated public schools. Massive Resistance had a profound effect on public education in Virginia, resulting in the closure of schools in Front Royal, Charlottesville, and Norfolk for a time during the 1958-1959 school year and the five-year closure of the Prince Edward County school system. In addition to closing schools, massive Resistance eroded Virginia’s reputation as a desirable location for industry. As a result, no new industry came to Virginia in 1958, a year that marked the height of the school closings. Concerns of the business community in Virginia were highlighted in the report issued by the Commission to Study Industrial Development, chaired by Charles Abbott, in 1957. The commission stressed the importance of education to a healthy business climate. “Of all the normal functions of state and local governments that may affect and influence industrial development favorably, or unfavorably, none is more important than education at both the secondary school and college levels,” the commission said. The report noted that uncertainty surrounding a stable public education system would undermine industrial development in Virginia, leaving young adults unprepared for the workplace and signaling to potential investors that Virginia was not a sound business climate because it did not encourage the development of an educated workforce. Even the U.S. Navy voiced its concern about the closure of schools in Norfolk, fearing that naval personnel, mostly young families, would not be able to enroll their children in public schools.
Virginia Industrialization Group
In 1958 a group of some of Virginia’s most influential business leaders came together to form what would become the Virginia Industrialization Group under the leadership of four individuals: Stuart Saunders, president of the Norfolk and Western Railway in Roanoke; Harvie Wilkinson, president of the State Planters Bank of Commerce & Trusts in Richmond; Frank Batten, publisher of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk; and Lewis Powell, an attorney in Richmond. All were gravely concerned about the effects Massive Resistance was having on Virginia’s business community. Saunders later stated that the purpose of the Virginia Industrialization Group was to bring an end to Massive Resistance. Into Wilkinson and Saunders dated December 15, 1958, Powell referred to the “school crisis” caused by Massive Resistance and said, “I doubt that enlightened business leaders elsewhere would consider Virginia an attractive place to move until we decide to rejoin the Union.” Originally, according to Saunders, the group intended to “operate in the background” and exert influence like a modern-day lobbying group might. But as its influence grew, it was difficult to keep its name and the names of its leadership out of the newspapers.
The Virginia Industrialization Group’s first meeting took place in December 1958 at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. The guest of honor was Governor. Following the governor’s speech, a discussion ensued between Almond and those present. The group’s membership pointed out the negative effects Massive Resistance was having on Virginia’s economy and image and the futility of continuing such measures. The exchange between the membership and Almond became contentious as Almond refused to yield and vowed that Virginia schools would never be integrated. In January 1959, both state and federal courts declared Massive Resistance unconstitutional, and Almond withdrew his support for its continuation.
With Massive Resistance in retreat, the Virginia Industrialization Group set out to establish and carry out an agenda designed to promote the business climate in Virginia. In February 1959, Batten wrote a report outlining the group’s priorities, including the development of the port of Hampton Roads, the strengthening of the Department of Conservation and Economic Development and the state’s Chamber of Commerce, and the development of a statewide system of technical education. To lead these efforts, the Virginia Industrialization Group in 1961 chose as its inaugural executive director former General Electric executive Richard Holmquist. In September of that year, Holmquist was installed as industrial development consultant to Governor Almond’s office. In 1962, under newly elected Governor, Holmquist became director of the Virginia Division of Industrial Development, with his annual salary of $25,000 paid by the Virginia Industrialization Group. Holmquist recognized that if Virginia wanted to be industrially competitive it would need an educated and well-trained workforce, which would require training on a statewide scale. To make this vision a reality, the Virginia Industrialization Group used its clout and political connections to lobby for the creation of the Department of Technical Education and recommended that Harrison hire Dana B. Hamel.
The Watchmaker’s Son
Hamel arrived in Virginia in the summer of 1962 after being hired by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (known today as Virginia Tech) to oversee the Roanoke Technical Institute, its new branch campus in Roanoke. Born in Maine in 1923, Hamel grew up in the heart of coal country in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, as the son of a watchmaker and attended college in the neighboring state of Ohio at the Ohio Mechanics Institute. After graduating from OMI, Hamel stayed on as a faculty member and went on to hold a variety of leadership positions, including acting president. As director of the Roanoke Technical Institute, Hamel was in a position to get to know Virginia’s industrial arena through his association with the advisory board of the Roanoke Technical Institute, which included representatives from General Electric, Norfolk & Western Railway, and International Business Machines Company.
In February 1964, Holmquist and Hamel beganfor a state rapidly outgrowing its agrarian past. Holmquist spoke of the prosperity that industry could bring to Virginia communities and asserted that the qualities necessary to attract businesses to Virginia included Hamel familiarized audiences with the value of technical education in preparing students for modern industrial work. He noted that “one of the state’s major liabilities is insufficient vocational and technical training” and pointed out that new personnel hired for a Waynesboro General Electric plant had to be “imported from outside the state.”
As Holmquist and Hamel traveled the state touting the benefits of technical education, legislation was making its way through the Virginia General Assembly that established the State Board for Technical Education and the State Department of Technical Education, declaring that “an emergency exists” in the state with its stagnant industrial climate.
In July 1964, Governor Harrison offered Hamel the position of director of the state’s newly formed Department of Technical Education. Shortly after the announcement of his hiring, Hamel told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he envisioned that the technical institutes would become a series of “comprehensive community colleges” offering technical training, medical training, two-year programs for college transfer, and continuing education opportunities for adult learners. There were some post-secondary vocational facilities in the state at the time, but they were not colleges per se. Hamel knew that by combining technical and academic education, these technical colleges could produce not only industry-ready labor but also students prepared to pursue education beyond the two-year college level.
Establishing the System
First Students at Northern Virginia Technical College
The founding of the Virginia Technical College System was the culmination of years of ideological discussions by Virginia’s political and educational leaders. As a predominantly rural state with most of its inhabitants at the time living in either Northern Virginia or on the peninsula stretching from Richmond to Virginia Beach, there was a need to locate the colleges where they would be accessible to the majority of students. A 1944 report by the Virginia Education Commission had recommended that “opportunities for this training should be placed within reach of all prospective students who may be benefited by it.” The new system provided regional coverage throughout the state within reasonable commuting distance for students.
There was also the issue of segregation at a time when the state’s public universities were only slowly desegregating. Reflecting the social climate of the times, the 1944 report had recommended that any new facilities be segregated. Other southern states had grappled with the challenge of establishing a statewide system of technical education in a pre-Brown world. In 1949, Florida established a separate system of twelve two-year colleges for Black students that lasted until the late 1960s. In the 1950s, North Carolina attempted to establish a two-year college system, but was stymied by the supposed need to create separate systems for white and Black students. In contrast, in a reflection of the post-Brown society of the early 1960s, there is no evidence the founders of the Virginia Technical College System discussed establishing segregated colleges. The focus was on creating an educated and well-trained industrial workforce as quickly as possible.
Creation of Northern Virginia Technical College
The Virginia Technical College System opened in the autumn of 1965. Virginia Western Technical College, previously Roanoke Technical Institute, and the Northern Virginia Technical College were the first schools to open. Northern Virginia Technical College began in a rented facility at Bailey’s Crossroads, just north of what is now the Alexandria campus. These colleges were joined by five regional vocational-technical schools: the Danville Technical Institute, Peninsula Vocational-Technical Education Center (Hampton), New River Vocational-Technical School (Radford), Valley Vocational-Technical School (Waynesboro), and Washington County Vocational-Technical School (Abingdon).
The original design of the Virginia Technical College System called for the creation of twenty-two colleges throughout the state. When the Virginia Technical College System became the Virginia Community College System in March 1966, the original vision was developed into the current twenty-three college system with the addition of Rappahannock Community College, established in 1970. By 2017, the Virginia Community College System accounted for half of Virginia’s total undergraduate enrollment.