2018-01-03 / Featured / Front Page

The legacy of Nellie McLeod, who fought to integrate county schools


Nellie Jane Hinderman McLeod, pictured here as a young woman, circa 1946, marched her two daughters to the whites-only Ettrick Elementary on the first day of school in 1961. After being denied admission, she persisted – and eventually won. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MCLEOD FAMILY Nellie Jane Hinderman McLeod, pictured here as a young woman, circa 1946, marched her two daughters to the whites-only Ettrick Elementary on the first day of school in 1961. After being denied admission, she persisted – and eventually won. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MCLEOD FAMILY It was the first day of school when Nellie Jane Hinderman McLeod marched her two daughters half a mile to Ettrick Elementary.

The year was 1961, and Nellie was determined that her daughters would attend the brand new and air-conditioned school just a short walk down River Road. Though they lived nearby, Sheila and Yolanda McLeod were denied access to the whites-only school, told they had missed the cutoff date for admissions. This was barely six years after the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, which deemed “separate but equal” desegregation policies as unconstitutional. Actual school integration, however, was still a few years off in Virginia; the Massive Resistance movement was in full throttle.

Charles McLeod, whose trailblazing mother forced county schools to desegregate, says his mother instilled in him a responsibility to fight injustice. 
JENNY McQUEEN Charles McLeod, whose trailblazing mother forced county schools to desegregate, says his mother instilled in him a responsibility to fight injustice. JENNY McQUEEN The following February, the McLeods and the families of more than a dozen other African-American students sued the school system and the state, eventually leading to the desegregation of Chesterfield’s school system. After a lengthy career of civil rights work and advocacy for African-Americans, Nellie McLeod passed away at the age of 89 in October. Nellie’s family received a letter of condolence from Gov. Terry McAuliffe and a plaque was presented to her son from the Chesterfield County School Board in December, recognizing the importance of her legacy.

The early work Nellie McLeod did to integrate Chesterfield’s schools has benefited hundreds of thousands of students, allowing them access to better educational opportunities. At a period when the school system is taking a more strenuous look at still-existing issues of equity for its students, Nellie’s story is a reminder: There’s still work to be done.

The third oldest of Nellie’s seven progeny, Charles “Mac” McLeod moved with his family from Beeville, Texas, to Virginia when he was 4.

By the time he graduated from Matoaca High in 1965, Charles had attended five different schools in the area. In pre-integration Virginia, Charles says his road to graduation was common, as black students often had to attend schools out of their districts.

Sitting in the kitchen of his Glen Allen home, Charles fondly recalls the force of nature that was his mother. There was that time he was falsely accused of shoplifting at a Petersburg department store; she sued. Once, at a gas station, she refused to pay for fuel after learning there wasn’t a restroom for black customers. With half a tank already pumped, the gas station attendant protested. McLeod told him he could suck it out himself.

“She had that bold Texas spirit,” Charles says. “Couldn’t be broken.”

Over the course of her long life, she fought for civil rights, led voter registration drives, advocated for equal treatment of African-Americans in the justice system and represented Virginia as a delegate at national conventions for the Democratic Party.

But perhaps what she’s best known for is leading the fight to desegregate Chesterfield’s schools.

It was the salt and pepper shakers that did it. Students at the underfunded blacks-only Union Grove Elementary in South Chesterfield were required to sell sets of salt and pepper shakers so the school could make the monthly payments for the typewriter in the school’s office.

This didn’t sit well with Nellie and another parent, Yvette Ridley, and they decided to join forces and form a PTA at Union Grove. Together, the group drew up a list of supplies the students needed, and asked their principal to send it to Chesterfield’s superintendent of schools. The principal declined.

Fed up with inequities within the school system, Nellie walked into Ettrick Elementary on the very first day it opened in the fall of 1961 to enroll her daughters. Yolanda Hall, who was 8 at the time, recalls the walk vividly.

“I just remember walking with my mom to school, and my mom had tears in her eyes,” says Hall, who now lives in Los Angeles. “At that age, I knew I was going to some place where other people might not be welcoming of me.”

Waiting to meet with the principal, Charles says her mother began to feel embarrassed about the fuss she was making. That embarrassment turned to anger when she saw a pallet of school supplies being wheeled into the school for the white students.

“She went from being scared to being mad,” he says. “She just got tired of her kids going to segregated schools and being [sent] all over the place.”

The girls’ applications were sent to the Virginia State Pupil Placement Board, which oversaw such decisions and played a major role during the era of Massive Resistance. The board’s executive secretary turned down the applications, saying they had missed a July deadline. That December, when the families of 15 black children – including Yolanda and Sheila McLeod – applied to transfer to Ettrick, they were denied.

The McLeods and other parents filed a lawsuit on Feb. 28, 1962, in U.S. District Court against the Chesterfield County School Board, its superintendent and the Virginia State Pupil Placement Board.

The case of Sheila Jane McLeod v. County School Board of Chesterfield County pitted heavyweight lawyers against each other: representing the parents was Samuel Tucker, counsel for the NAACP, and Henry Marsh, who would later become a Richmond councilman and mayor, and eventually state senator; representing the School Board was former State Attorney General Frederick T. Gray.

In addition to the state’s former top prosecutor, the parents had to contend with less subtle forms of intimidation, including threatening phone calls made in the middle of the night.

One afternoon, while Nellie was raking leaves, a man drove up and gave her a warning. Saying he was acting unofficially – he was either a county employee or police officer – the man told Nellie of a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning that might take place on her front lawn. Nellie’s response? She asked the official to keep the Klan members from burning the cross near her newly-mulched shrubs.

Meanwhile, Gray tried to get the lawsuit dismissed, saying that only the Virginia State Pupil Placement Board had the authority to assign students. For its part, the placement board said that the students had only been denied because they had filed too late for admission, and that they could apply for the 1962-63 school year. As the suit was being heard, seven students applied in July 1962 to attend Ettrick Elementary. The applications went on to the placement board, which withheld its decision, requesting additional information.

While the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education had ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, the decision didn’t explain how or how quickly desegregation was supposed to be completed. The following year, the Supreme Court issued implementation guidelines and ordered lower federal courts to manage “with all deliberate speed” the desegregation of schools.

From the Brown decision through 1959, state officials across the south avoided desegregation through a strategy called Massive Resistance. Laws cut off state funds to any public school that attempted to integrate; tuition grants were given on behalf of students whose parents opposed integrated schools; in Virginia, the pupil placement board was created to assign specific students to schools.

Virginia began to desegregate its schools in 1959, but public officials crafted complex admissions processes to limit the amount of desegregation taking place. Most black applicants were rejected; by late 1965, fewer than 12,000 of Virginia’s roughly 235,000 black students went to desegregated schools in Virginia. It wasn’t until the 1968 Supreme Court ruling Green v. County School Board of New Kent County that more meaningful integration took place.

Throughout this period, smaller desegregation battles were occurring at the local level, including Chesterfield. In November 1962, U.S. District Court Judge John Butzner Jr. issued a court order stating that two of the seven Chesterfield students – Reuben Pierce and James Brewer – should be allowed into Ettrick immediately, and required the School Board to submit a plan to end racial discrimination within the school system in 90 days. While those two students waited to hear from the school system about attending Ettrick, the School Board decided to consult the placement board first, and Gray submitted a motion to amend Butzner’s court order, stating that the students had not applied for school in time.

The placement board said Pierce and Brewer should be admitted. With little fuss, the children enrolled at Ettrick Elementary on Nov. 27, 1962, desegregating Chesterfield’s schools.

For Sheila McLeod, the importance of the court case that bears her name didn’t sink in at the time; she was more worried about losing her friends by transferring schools.

“It means more to me now,” says Sheila, 65, who now lives in Arlington, Texas. “When we did go to Ettrick, we were walking alone for a while. We had no friends.”

Once on a field trip, her bus stopped at a roadside convenience store with a “whites only” sign. A student mocked her, saying she couldn’t go in, but her teacher told her she had to.

“I did go in, so I realized the impact of what integration meant, and how black people were treated,” Sheila says .

When Chesterfield’s schools began to desegregate, Charles was attending Peabody High in Petersburg even though he lived in the county. As part of Massive Resistance, Charles says the school system would pay other school districts to educate its black students, rather than have them attend a closer white school. No transportation was provided. Because of his mother’s efforts, Charles would spend his junior and senior high school years at Matoaca High.

At first, Charles recalls, the students self-segregated: whites sat with whites, blacks sat with blacks. Visiting the school one day, Nellie was far from pleased to see this, telling Charles she hadn’t worked this hard to desegregate the school system only to have the students self-segregate once they got there.

Charles soon convinced his friends to arrive early to the cafeteria, each sitting at their own table to force the issue; eventually, blacks and whites sat together.

“It wasn’t just a superficial integration that she was seeking,” Charles says. “She was seeking complete, full and uncompromised integration.”

That wasn’t the only instance where Charles would emulate his mother. After playing basketball at Virginia State University, Charles transferred to what is now Virginia Commonwealth University in 1966, becoming the school’s first African-American basketball player on scholarship. He would go on to become a minority recruiter for VCU in 1970. He eventually earned his master’s degree from VCU and worked as assistant supervisor for minority affairs for the Virginia Department of Education, and later directed VCU’s academic support program for student athletes.

At its meeting on Dec. 12, Chesterfield’s School Board recognized Nellie’s contributions, presenting Charles with a plaque that states “Mrs. McLeod’s efforts paved the way for equitable education for all students in Chesterfield and beyond,” and that “the School Board recognizes Mrs. Nellie Jane Hinderman McLeod for her heroic efforts on behalf of those in need of a voice.”

During the same meeting, a presentation of recommendations from the recently formed equity committee was given, highlighting ways the school system can improve educational access for all. The report, which included input from teachers, residents and academics, states that some students lack the access to advanced-level courses and both instructional and extracurricular resources. Among other recommendations, the committee advised hiring more teachers that reflect the student population demographically, developing an equity policy and requiring cultural competency training for all staff members.

These are efforts Nellie would likely have welcomed. After Charles received his bachelor’s from VCU, Nellie pressured him to obtain his master’s at the school, as well as a doctorate in education from the University of Virginia. Four of his siblings went to college, and his two sons both graduated from Harvard; one pitched in the Little League World Series, the other played football at Harvard.

“Each succeeding generation benefited from the one before it,” Charles says.

A room in Charles’ home is set up to celebrate his family’s accomplishments. On one wall there are degrees belonging to him and his wife. On two wrought-iron stands are his sons’ bachelor’s degrees from Harvard. And on a stand near the entranceway is Nellie’s commendation from the School Board.

Reflecting on his mother, Charles jokes that she’s probably organizing right now to integrate heaven.

“She had a sense of rightness. She knew what was right, and she knew what was wrong,” Charles says. “She had an impatience with injustice.” 

Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we incorrectly reported that Sheila and Yolanda McLeod attended Union Grove Elementary. It was Charles and Elaine McLeod who attended Union Grove. Also, Yolanda was 8 at the time of the walk down to Ettrick Elementary.

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