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Civil Rights Pioneer Awarded Diploma 54 Years Late

Olivia Ferguson McQueen

Olivia Ferguson McQueen

By Aaron Richardson 

Olivia Ferguson McQueen received her high school diploma on Saturday, May 25th, 54 years after finishing high school in a tiny room at the Charlottesville School Board office, then located at the Venable school.

In 1958, at age 16, McQueen was the principal plaintiff in a successful lawsuit to integrate Charlottesville City Schools. Despite her victory, McQueen spent her senior year sequestered from her peers and was never awarded a true diploma.

An early 1959 Virginia Supreme Court ruling overturning Massive Resistance would have allowed McQueen to attend the previously all-white Lane High School.

The School Board, however, had other ideas. McQueen was barred from Lane, and spent her senior year being tutored in the School Board office.

Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Pamela Moran, and Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins awarded McQueen her diploma in a ceremony at what is now Burley Middle School. When McQueen was a student, Burley served as the black high school for both county and city students. It is now an Albemarle County school.

“What a day this is,” McQueen, who grew up on Ridge Street, said. “It really was a surprise when I received a call saying that something was being planned, but I didn’t know to what extent something was being planned.”

In the auditorium where she watched her peers graduate in June 1959, the school system and the Burley High Varsity Club celebrated McQueen’s contribution to generations of African-American school children who came after her.

“I would like to think that I have made a difference, and continue to make a difference,” she said after being handed a framed diploma by Atkins and Moran. “But the truth is, we have all made a difference.”

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