Fired Alexandria school cook’s civil rights fight changed local history

Blois Hundley. (Courtesy Hundley Family)

WASHINGTON — When Blois Hundley raised her hand in 1958, she wasn’t trying to become a civil rights pioneer, she was just seeking equality for her children.

But first, she got fired.

Hundley was a cafeteria cook at Lyles-Crouch Elementary School, in the city of Alexandria, Virginia. The mother of eight was a waitress on the weekends and picked up extra money housekeeping.

During a PTA meeting, members of the NAACP, who were planning to sue Virginia school systems to integrate schools, spoke to the audience.

“They asked if any parents would be interested in having their children go to the whites-only high school, which at the time was George Washington High School, and she raised her hand,” said reporter Jim McElhatton of the Alexandria Times.

Soon, two of Hundley’s children were among 14 African American children named as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit aimed at integrating Alexandria schools.

When longtime school superintendent T.C. Williams learned of the suit, he immediately fired Hundley.

“It had nothing to do with her job performance, which he said was very good,” McElhatton said. “He considered it a slap in the face that she would join in this federal lawsuit against the same city school system that employed her.”

“He maintained it had nothing to do with race or the color of her skin. But it had everything to do with that, because she was on the right side of history, and trying to make sure her children had the same access to education that the white kids had,” said McElhatton.

The school board initially supported Williams, but as the U.S. Justice Department prepared to launch a civil rights investigation, Williams changed course.

“It was only under this cloud that he eventually decided he would offer her her old job back, but she declined.”

Hundley and her family moved to Washington, D.C.

McElhatton said a philanthropist and owner of the Northern Virginia Sun newspaper, Philip Stern, was outraged by Hundley’s firing. He offered her a job working as a personal cook for his family, which she readily accepted.

Six months after the lawsuit was filed, Alexandria schools integrated on Feb. 10, 1959, after a federal judge ruled that nine of the 14 African American students were denied entry to white schools on the basis of their race. The Hundley children were not included in the nine students.

Georgetown University professor Douglas Reed, whose 2014 book “Building the Federal Schoolhouse” details how federal education policies impacted Alexandria and other school systems, told McElhatton Hundley’s actions were similar to other civil rights pioneers’ contributions.

“In some ways, it’s a minor thing to raise your hand,” Reed said. “But in other ways, it’s how social movements take off. It becomes a tipping point. What is acceptable as the status quo is really no longer acceptable.”

Hundley died early this century, in her 90s. McElhatton said her firing went unmentioned in her 2008 obituary.

Her children told McElhatton Hundley didn’t plan on becoming an important figure in the civil rights history of Alexandria.

“She raised her hand, because she was being a good mother,” McElhatton said. “She didn’t talk a lot about this episode, but it’s a very important episode in the city’s history.”

“Many, many people know the name T.C. Williams, but they probably haven’t heard the name of Blois Hundley,” he said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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