Local Civil Rights Pioneer Gets High School Diploma 54 Years Later

By: Jessica Cunnington Email
By: Jessica Cunnington Email

May 25, 2013

It's graduation season all over the country, but one Charlottesville native who was at the forefront of desegregation in the city was back in town to receive her high school diploma.

May 25, 2013, was a special day for Olivia Ferguson McQueen. She is now an official high school graduate of Charlottesville City Schools. Fifty-four years ago, she was denied that same diploma.

"I haven't really talked about this, not many friends know about what happened in '59," she said.

In 1959, the 16-year-old was a plaintiff in a desegregation case against the city and county school divisions. She was one of the 12 early plaintiffs suing to attend white city schools.

"That was a very brave thing to do especially in those times," said Donald Byers, President of the Class of '59 at Burley High School.

She was fighting to leave the hallways of Burley High School, the black high school, to go to Lane, the white high school.

"For Olivia and her family to step up to the forefront was a life threatening situation," said classmate Waltine Eubanks.
"Separate but equal was the mandate or the mantra of that time but anyone with a brain knew it was not equal."

"It was frightening. It was a very lonely time for me," said McQueen.

The judge ruled in favor of letting her go to Lane High School with the whites but the school board refused to let that happen. She was forced to spend her senior year in the school board office at the time which is the Venable Annex, behind what's now Venable Elementary School.

"Whatever part we played in making your life that tough year, I just want to say I'm sorry," said Albemarle County Schools superintendent Pam Moran at Sunday's event.

Even though it might be 54 years too late, McQueen's classmates, every generation since and to come will celebrate her bravery and sacrifice.

"I realized it was very important that my grandchildren knew the story. Especially my granddaughter," McQueen said. "We can make up our minds to do something with the encouragement and support from family and friends to stand up for what's right. I hope I've set a good example and they know what the legacy is."

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