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A Historical Account of the Walker-Grant High School Graduating Class of 1950 and Why They Protested

Walker-Grant school building

DHR – Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Below is an excerpt provided by Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) on the events related to the 1950 graduating class of Walker-Grant High School. Learn about the protest for the right to use the front door at community center for commencement.

In June 1950, the high school was preparing for its largest graduating class to date (27 individuals). It became clear that the school’s own facilities would be too small to host all of the students, friends, family members, teachers, and administrators who wanted to attend. On the advice of Dr. Wyatt, James Walker, the senior class president and a member of Shiloh (Old Site), approached the city. Mrs. R. C. Ellison, president of the Walker-Grant Parent Teachers Association and a member of Shiloh (Old Site), accompanied him. They asked for permission to hold the school’s commencement ceremonies at the city’s spacious Community Center, customarily used only by whites.

Initially, the city refused the request. Dr. Wyatt then advised James Walker on strategies in appealing the decision. Eventually, the city relented, agreeing that the black high school could use the Community Center for its commencement but stipulating that no student, teacher, or family member could enter through the front doors. All people of color would be required to enter and exit through a small side door near the back of the building.

James Walker, the class president, reported this restriction to his class members and said that he would rather get his diploma on the sidewalk than be forced to enter the Community Center through the back door. Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) then stepped in and offered its facilities for the commencement. With Dr. Wyatt and Mrs. Ellison from Shiloh (Old Site) assisting with the planning and with the full backing of the Fredericksburg chapter of the NAACP, the Walker-Grant High School senior class then developed a plan to meet in caps and gowns on commencement day outside the front doors of the Community Center, holding large signs saying, “These doors closed to us.”

Members of Shiloh Old Site played key roles in planning and implementing a 1950 march protesting a decision by the city that denied black high school graduates and their families the right to enter the city’s publicly funded community center through the front door. A crowd of at least three hundred gathered in support of the demonstration. After the graduating class sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often described as “the Negro national anthem,” and heard a prayer, Dr. Wyatt presented two “dummy diplomas,” making a speech about how the class was “learning at the outset that life is filled with problems.” They then marched peacefully from there to Shiloh (Old Site), where the actual commencement ceremony was held. Although Shiloh (Old Site)’s sanctuary was smaller than ideal, it was a church that had supported and encouraged the class in its protest, and a number of Walker-Grant’s students and teachers were members of the congregation.

The Walker-Grant High School Class of 1950 Graduates1

Leon Bass, Floyd Chambers, Cecil Cropp, Richard Ellison, Grace Garnett Sprow, Mildred Griffin, Norman Jackson, William Jackson, James Johnson, Thomas Johnson, Raymond Johnson, Delacy Lawson Taylor, John Mason, Alvin Noel, William Noel, James Owens, Eleanor Redd-Binford, Wilma Richardson, Joseph Ross, Richard St. Clair, Martha Smith, Thomas Sprow, William Sprow, James Walker, Maggie Williams, Roger Williams, and Walter Wyche.

1The names of the students were provided by Fredericksburg City Schools.

To read more about Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) and their role in the history of Fredericksburg, please visit their website.

In February 2022, the City of Fredericksburg installed a historical panel at the Dorothy Hart Community Center. Watch a video of the unveiling ceremony.