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Years Before Brown v. Board Of Education, There Was A Lawsuit For 'Equalization'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Black history is rich with stories often not told, like when a segregated school in a small Virginia town burned down in 1938. From its ashes came a court case that pre-dated Brown v. the Board of Education, the law declaring segregation unconstitutional. As Robbie Harris of member station WVTF reports, most people in town never knew about the role it played in the fight for racial equality until now.

ROBBIE HARRIS, BYLINE: After the fire, a new school was built for black students in Pulaski, Va. Dorothy Venable taught at the Calfee Training School for decades. She says black teachers were never invited to meetings that white teachers attended, but this one time, she wasn't having it. And when she walked through the door, the supervisor was none too pleased to see her.

DOROTHY VENABLE: The room was full of teachers, so what could she say? She couldn't embarrass me.

HARRIS: And at that meeting, she was able to get the same school supplies that the white teachers received. Gary Hash (ph) was her student in the early '60s.

GARY HASH: I believe that the teachers understood the challenges that were in front of us. We're getting these kids ready for this life that they're facing.

HARRIS: A life of closed doors and unequal opportunities. In Pulaski, formal education for African Americans ended at junior high.

MICKEY HICKMAN: It was deliberate that black students would only go to the ninth grade.

HARRIS: Mickey Hickman (ph) is a Calfee School alumnus.

HICKMAN: So that would attract them to lower-wage jobs.

HARRIS: And that's why a young man named Chauncey Harmon left town to get his college degree. He studied at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, under George Washington Carver. And later, he became the principal at Calfee. In 1939, while he waited for the school to be rebuilt, Harmon did something unheard of. He started a petition for equal school facilities and teacher pay in Pulaski.

MARILYN HARMON: He had African Americans, as well as whites.

HARRIS: Dr. Marilyn Harmon is the late Chauncey Harmon's daughter.

HARMON: And for many of them it was, as long as they're not coming to us, let them have what they want.

HARRIS: That petition became the basis for a lawsuit seeking racial equalization. Harmon and a prominent Pulaski physician named Percy Corbin won their case in 1949, five years before Brown v. the Board.

WAYNE TRIPP: Mr. Harmon was involved with one of the earliest efforts in civil rights.

HARRIS: That's Wayne Tripp. He wrote his dissertation on Harmon's little-known fight for equality in Pulaski and its connection to Brown, what would become the landmark case aimed at ending racial segregation filed by Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice.

TRIPP: It was interesting to me - when I got started in this, I thought, eh, I don't know about all this. But the more I dug into it and the more I read, I mean, clearly, it was there. Can you connect Thurgood Marshall to Mr. Harmon's work in Calfee? Yes, you definitely can.

DAVE CLARK: I've been here for soon to be 61 years. And a year and a half ago, I heard for the first time in my life the story of Chauncey Harmon and the lawsuit.

HARRIS: Dave Clark is mayor of Pulaski.

CLARK: It happened right here in my town, and that tells you how far we've come and how far we have to go.

HARRIS: After the legal victory, Principal Harmon was not offered a contract to return to Calfee. Now Pulaski is fundraising to turn the empty school building into a community center with a museum commemorating Harmon, Corbin, and the town's role in the fight for racial equality. Calfee teacher Dorothy Venable says that's fitting.

VENABLE: Black people, white people, anybody who needs the services of what's going on in this building - what's going to go on in this building will be able to use it.

HARRIS: The museum won't shy away from pointing out de-segregation did not come to Pulaski County schools until the late '60s, more than a decade after Brown v. the Board of Education. For NPR News, I'm Robbie Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVENINGS' "BABE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.