Civil Rights Movement in Middleburg Virginia

by Eugene Scheel
A Waterford historian and mapmaker.

At the dawn of the 1960s, Loudoun County had more than twice the percentage of blacks – 18 percent of the county's 24,549 residents – then it has today. Yet the county, like much of the South at the time, was far more racially divided.

Other than a few churches where blacks worshiped with whites, the only apparent integrated facility was the public library in Purcellville. Schools were completely segregated, thanks to a resolution passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in 1956 that vowed to withhold money from integrated schools.

There were no restaurants for blacks. The few that had served blacks – including Leesburg's Do Drop Inn, Middleburg's Rose Log and William Edds's Pigeon Hill in modern-day CountrySide – were closed.

But the civil rights movement was taking root in Washington, and it wouldn't be long before Loudoun would be caught up in it, too, beginning with the hunt country town of Middleburg.

The town was home to William McKinley Jackson, president of the Loudoun chapter of the NAACP, and Middleburg had more black businesses than any other town in the county. It also was the town closest to Glen Ora, the country getaway for President John F. Kennedy, a strong supporter of civil rights, and his wife.

The Kennedys' first country weekend was Feb. 11-12, 1961, and they were highly visible as they attended Mass at Middleburg Community Center. The celebrant was the Rev. Albert F. Pereira, an outspoken opponent of segregation. A few years before, when his Roanoke parish would not integrate, Pereira resigned his first pastorate.

Students from Howard University decided to test Kennedy's civil rights resolve on a turf they perceived as his own. In late February, two Howard students walked into Halle Flournoy's drugstore in Middleburg and sat at the lunch counter.

Normally, blacks stood and waited for their takeout orders and then left. Most restaurants accommodated them through a rear door or a kitchen window.

In this case, the students were refused service. They called Jackson and asked him to organize a sit-in demonstration at Flournoy's and at Middleburg's three restaurants. Jackson put them off and asked Pereira for advice.

Pereira contacted town ministers and Mayor Edwin Reamer, and they met with Flournoy and the restaurant owners.

The reception they received, Pereira told me years ago, was "lukewarm until they heard that John Eisenhard [managing editor of the Fauquier Democrat] phoned me and told me the Washington NAACP and CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] chapters were coming to Middleburg in buses. To make matters worse, they were coming on a Sunday when the president would be attending Mass."

"Hearing that news, their attitude changed. No one wished to embarrass the president or give the town a bad name."

On April 9, the day before "Confrontation Sunday," as it had been billed by D.C. black leaders, two local black customers sipped colas at Flournoy's lunch counter.

Pereira closed his April 10 homily with these words: "Let us pray together today that understanding and love may exist between the races, and that from now on, the area of communications be broadened so that Negroes will have the opportunity to become first-class citizens."

Later that week, Jackson phoned the town's black physician, Maurice Edmead, and invited him to dine at the Red Fox Tavern. Others, blacks and whites, joined the men in what must have been the first public integrated table since the turn of the 19th century.

Loudoun's one newspaper, the Loudoun Times-Mirror, criticized the swift action. Editor Fitzhugh Turner, in an editorial with the headline "Unfair Pressure at Middleburg," wrote: "Is it right for a handful of people, however well motivated, to seek to upset the customs and way of life of a community without giving the people of the community a chance to have their say?"

Letters to the editor from the "handful" far outnumbered those who supported Turner's position.

Success in Middleburg quickened the resolve of Howard activists. Within the next two weeks, they visited Leesburg and were refused service at a lunch counter. They then told a black person of the incident, and he advised them to speak with Gladys Jackson Bryant, who was "raised with the Quaker influence [in Waterford] and taught not to be second class," she told me some years ago.

Bryant spoke with leaders of the black community, and by word of mouth and phone they contacted blacks across the county. On April 24, nearly one-tenth of Loudoun's black population gathered at Leesburg's Douglass High School.

In response, a disturbed Mayor George Babson called upon B. Powell Harrison, who was chairman of the racial study commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

Harrison recalled Babson's words in a 1995 manuscript he mailed to me: "Powell, we have an emergency here in Leesburg . . . 400 Negroes attended a mass meeting . . . and voted to have a sit-in in Leesburg this Saturday. They want to compel the lunch-counters of the town to serve Negroes.

"The NAACP in Washington is involved. They plan to send six bus loads of Negroes to Leesburg on Saturday. They will join the local Negroes in a demonstration downtown, followed by sit-ins. . . . They will sit there until served."

Harrison, a Leesburg native who knew the town well and was active in many community programs, wrote in the manuscript: "We had assumed that ours was a town of true harmony. . . . [It was a] shocking revelation that in dear Leesburg . . . whites were totally ignorant of the unhappiness and deep resentment stirring."

Harrison and Babson invited a delegation of whites to meet with blacks at St. James' Church, which Harrison attended.

Besides Harrison and Babson, the group was to include the town's four drugstore owners, four clergymen -- "to keep the peace," Harrison told me several years ago -- and Harrison's brother-in-law, Francis L. Patton, a lawyer.

Independently, the black community also decided to approach the drugstore owners with a contingent of four: Eugene Barber, Gladys Bryant, Louis Vondel Roberts and Robert Simms.

When the two groups learned of their similar plans, they decided to get together at St. James' the day before the planned demonstration.

Pharmacist William Bodmer immediately startled the 15 by stating, in Harrison's words: "I've been serving Negroes whenever they have come into my drugstore for something like two years. . . . I've never had one white person complain."

The ice had been broken. The other druggists agreed to open their lunch counters to everyone.

Of Saturday, April 29, 1961, Harrison wrote: "One Washington NAACP bus came, led by Stokely Carmichael, a nationally known civil rights leader. They joined a small army of local Negroes. They 'tested' each of the lunch-counters two or three times. No troubles."

On May 3, 14 of the 15 who had met the previous Friday agreed to a resolution acknowledging that blacks had the "privilege to use the lunch counters" but containing no other specifics.

I recently asked Barber, one of two group members still living (Bryant is the other), why there was such a concentration on lunch counters? He answered, "Most of us were making 75 or 80 cents an hour, and we couldn't afford much more than the 25- or 35-cent lunch."

Copyright © Eugene Scheel