Late in the evening on Oct. 18, the then-chairwoman of the Albemarle County School Board urged her colleagues to make a decision that she said couldn’t wait.
After learning about a 1956 article in Commentary magazine that ascribed racist statements to former Albemarle schools Superintendent Paul H. Cale, the namesake of Cale Elementary School, the School Board directed Superintendent Matt Haas to begin a review of the names of county schools and determine if any are “inconsistent with the division’s values.”
Kate Acuff, the board’s chairwoman at the time, said the immediate action was necessary to ensure Albemarle’s schools are welcoming to all students. But the decision also might have revealed how the division’s recent efforts to deal with legacies of racism might just be scratching the surface of its history.
Acuff said recently that she knows little about the county’s longest-serving superintendent beyond the contents of the 1956 article.
“I don’t think any of us did,” Acuff said. “These comments, if accurate, are disturbing. But no one on the School Board … knew Mr. Cale. No one is interested in making decisions based on a comment from over 60 years ago.”
The sudden turn of events in October was heartbreaking for Cale’s children, and his son as recently as 2011 had been invited back to Albemarle for events that honored his father’s legacy.
“This whole incident totally came out of the blue,” Paul Cale Jr. said. “It was very hurtful to us.”
Cale said he recently reviewed a trove of newspaper clippings and letters from his father’s tenure as superintendent that his late mother had collected. He firmly believes that Cale Sr. supported the gradual integration of Albemarle’s school system while working under School Board members, county supervisors and state legislators who were hell-bent on preventing it from happening.
“He didn’t create that situation. He just had to deal with the way that it was,” Cale said of his father. “There was never any indication that he was trying to prevent integration from happening.”
As the school division awaits the hiring of a historian to conduct further research on school namesakes, it is also attempting to dive deeply into issues of racial equity. But is it possible to solve these problems before understanding their origins in the past?
Filmmaker Lorenzo Dickerson also works as a web and social media specialist for Albemarle County Public Schools
Credit: Albemarle County Public Schools
In “Virginia’s Creeping Desegregation,” journalist James Rorty investigated how different regions of the state were responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education two years after the 1954 verdict.
Rorty reported that Cale Sr. doubted integration would be feasible in Albemarle, in part because white parents would remove their children from public schools that employed black teachers.
According to Rorty, Cale Sr. personally believed the county’s black teachers were inferior to their white peers, going as far as to “[declare] that an M.A. from Columbia didn’t necessarily make a Negro teacher either professionally competent or trustworthy.”
Cale Sr. also voiced frustration with principals of black schools who had lost faith in him and “refused to confer [with him] except publicly, in the presence of their entire staffs,” Rorty wrote.
“What did the Negroes expect to happen next?” Cale Sr. said in the article. “What did they want?”
Before making her motion to review school names, Acuff said Albemarle “should not revere or celebrate these viewpoints nor preserve them in perpetuity in the names of public buildings.”
Cale Jr. says he had never heard of the 1956 Commentary article before it resurfaced last fall. In letters to the School Board, he has argued that Rorty’s extensive paraphrasing may have distorted his father’s actual statements. He also noted that Rorty made at least one error by referring to his father as “Dr. Cale”; Cale Sr. never earned a doctoral degree.
Lorenzo Dickerson, a web and social media specialist for Albemarle schools, said he found Rorty’s article a few years ago while producing two historical documentaries, “Albemarle’s Black Classrooms” and “Color Line of Scrimmage.”
While Dickerson has intensively studied the process of desegregation in the county, his research so far has revealed little else about Cale Sr.’s personal views on race.
“You would think it would be easier to find information about him,” Dickerson said. “I’m not sure why it’s not.”
Dickerson included excerpts from Commentary in “History is the Present,” a 30-minute presentation on the educational experience of African-Americans in Albemarle. After Dickerson shared the presentation in October with staff at Western Albemarle High School, Haas asked if he could make it a part of that week’s School Board meeting.
An introductory slide describes the presentation’s purpose as “[showing] that this history is not as ancient or far away as we often may think, but instead is very local and carried with us today through our own experiences, inherited generational understanding and decision making, and even lives in current building names and monuments.”
Dickerson said convincing the School Board to change the names of Cale Elementary or other schools never was his intention. However, he appreciated board members’ attention to the article and their response.
“It’s worth looking into, when the comment is that direct and that specific,” Dickerson said. “We have African-American students and teachers going in and out of the [Cale Elementary School] building every day.”
Paul H. Cale (right), pictured at a School Board meeting in the 1950s. At left: School Board member E. J. Oglesby.
Credit: Bob Tenney, The Daily Progress
School Board members hope that further research will determine whether Cale’s portrayal in Commentary was an anomaly, or a faithful representation of his views.
A preliminary search through Daily Progress articles and School Board meeting minutes suggests that Cale usually wasn’t so forthcoming with his opinions on racial issues. A clearer picture could emerge from Cale’s professional correspondence and other papers that Albemarle has preserved in a warehouse.
“Until now, there has been little need to review those papers, but it seems that may no longer be the case,” said division spokesman Phil Giaramita.
While it is difficult to be certain of Cale’s personal beliefs, one thing is clear: Under his leadership, Albemarle’s schools remained segregated long after the Supreme Court deemed the practice to be unconstitutional.
Brown vs. Board of Education led to Albemarle postponing all of its plans to build new schools. By 1955, the School Board and Board of Supervisors had declared their support for a “separate but equal system of schools, based on voluntary segregation.”
In 1956, Virginia’s General Assembly promoted Massive Resistance to desegregation by creating a Pupil Placement Board that could assign students to specific schools for various reasons. It also passed a law that closed any public school that attempted to integrate.
In the fall of 1958 — two years after a federal court demanded that Charlottesville desegregate its schools — Gov. James Lindsay Almond Jr. ordered the immediate closure of the city’s Lane High and Venable Elementary schools. They reopened and admitted 12 black students in 1959.
Cale and the Albemarle School Board kept schools open — and segregated — by pursuing a strategy of “passive resistance.” The division hoped that building new schools for black families would dissuade them from legally challenging the segregated school system as they had in Charlottesville.
At the end of the 1950s, Albemarle established two new elementary schools for black students: Murray in Ivy and Rose Hill in Charlottesville. The Rose Hill building currently houses the county’s charter high school and middle school.
In 1963, under growing pressure from the federal government, the Pupil Placement Board assigned 26 black students in Albemarle to attend previously all-white schools. Albemarle later adopted a “free-choice plan” that, in theory, let children apply to attend schools that were closer to their homes regardless of their race.
When Albemarle’s schools were fully integrated in 1967, Burley High School ceased to operate as an all-black high school for city and county students and became known as the Jack Jouett Junior Annex and housed seventh-graders from Jack Jouett Junior High. In the 1970s, it became a middle school for grades six through eight. Cale hired Alexander L. Scott, the last principal of Burley, as his assistant superintendent for instruction.
Cale and Scott both retired in 1969. Six years later, Scott wrote a letter to the School Board to recommend Cale as the namesake for the planned Western Albemarle High School.
Scott, who was African-American, gave Cale credit for piloting the county schools “from a dual to a unitary [integrated] system serving all the children of the county.”
“A school named in [Cale’s] honor is a fitting accolade to service rendered,” Scott wrote.
In 1989, three years after Cale’s death, the School Board voted unanimously to name a planned “Southside Elementary School” after the former superintendent. School Board minutes suggest that there was little controversy, or even much interest, in the vote. But the repercussions of that choice became front-page news in 2018.
Acuff briefed several reporters on the contents of the Commentary article and her planned motion to review school names in the afternoon before the Oct. 18 School Board meeting. Most local media outlets published stories on the subject soon after.
Acuff dismissed the suggestion that her motion was influenced by growing public frustration with the School Board’s reluctance to ban Confederate imagery from the division’s student dress code.
The School Board has resisted demands from parents and activists to implement the ban since early 2018. The board adjourned its Aug. 23 work session early in response to outbursts from audience members during a public comment period. During the make-up meeting — which did not offer an opportunity for public comment — police arrested six people who were protesting at the former Lane High School, now the Albemarle County Office Building.
Acuff said she wanted to notify the press about her proposal to address public concerns about the name of Cale Elementary School proactively, in light of the new findings about its namesake.
“I thought the naming issue would perhaps come up whether we did the resolution or not,” Acuff said. “The [white supremacist] events in Charlottesville [in 2017] have really put a sharper focus on racism in our community. It has generated questions all over the country. … That is the big context.”
Paul H. Cale Elementary School is named for a longtime superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools.
Credit: Elliott Robinson, Charlottesville Tomorrow
Many Virginia school divisions have phased out school namesakes that reflected the state’s racial history, from Confederate generals to 20th-century segregationists.
In 2016, Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools renamed Rawls Byrd Elementary School, which previously honored a former superintendent who helped keep that division segregated well into the 1960s. Also in 2016, Henrico County Public Schools changed the name of Harry F. Byrd Middle School, named for a former governor who as a senator spearheaded Massive Resistance. Albemarle soon will decide if it will follow suit with Cale Elementary.
The School Board on Jan. 24 approved a revised policy for building and naming facilities. The new policy states that the legacies of school namesakes should align with “the [School] Board’s adopted vision, mission, and goals and the greater Albemarle community’s values and contemporary view on history.”
Along with the School Board or superintendent, school communities also can initiate the naming review process with a petition signed by enough students or family members to represent 75 percent of the school’s enrollment.
Albemarle schools in January also issued a request for quotations to conduct research on the namesakes of its 14 schools named after individuals. The RFQ said that research on Cale and three other schools should be completed by April, with a final report due in September.
However, Albemarle did not receive a response to the RFQ. Giaramita said two historians who had indicated interest had to change their plans because of the federal government shutdown.
“Now that the shutdown temporarily is over, that may change their view,” Giaramita said. “We also are looking into the possibility of using other researchers.”
The current uncertainty about the career of Paul Cale Sr. raises the question of whether the school division can engage with the community on racial issues, or develop an effective anti-racism policy, before filling gaps in its understanding of the desegregation period and its legacy.
Giaramita said the county’s historian will be directed to focus on determining whether Cale and other school namesakes represent the values of the school division today.
“Any process that increases a deeper understanding of decisions around racially significant issues, such as equal educational opportunity, can bring people together around broadly embraced solutions,” Giaramita said. “We’ll have to wait and see what the researcher ultimately delivers.”
Scovie Martin, a longtime history teacher at Western Albemarle High, said he knows “next to nothing” about Cale. But he believes the Commentary article indicates that Albemarle’s handling of desegregation was aimed at maintaining structures of white supremacy and white privilege.
Martin said his classroom discussions about race have changed dramatically since the white supremacist events of August 2017 and related local controversies over Confederate monuments, the regulation of Confederate symbols in schools and the legacies of former leaders like Cale.
Martin said that he and his students are now “talking about [America’s] fraught racial history as belonging to our immediate history.” This year, he plans to teach students in his Advanced Placement U.S. History course about the local use of discriminatory mortgage lending practices, or “redlining.”
“Many students live in a bubble of tolerance and acceptance, which deludes them into thinking that our ugly racial past belonged to other places, but not our community,” Martin said.
The leaders of Albemarle schools have committed to taking a hard look at this history. But it could take even more research and reflection for the division to go beyond eliminating symbols of a racist past and begin dismantling the structures that have carried this racism into the present.