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Williams: Carol Irene Swann desegregated Richmond Public Schools. She must not be forgotten. | Education | richmond.com
AROL IRENE SWANN (1948-2022)
Williams: Carol Irene Swann desegregated Richmond Public Schools. She must not be forgotten.
Michael Paul Williams
Feb 18, 2022
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Gloria Jean Mead and Carol Irene Swann desegregated Chandler Junior High School on Brookland Park Boulevard in Richmond on Sept. 7, 1960.
Gary Burns/anderson collection/the valentine
In September 1960 Gloria Jean Mead (left), 13, and Carol Irene Swann, 12, followed by a Richmond plainclothesman, walk toward Chandler Junior High School, where they became the first Black students to integrate Richmond's public schools.
Richmond News Leader
Gloria Jean Mead and Carol Irene Swann integrating Chandler Junior High School, Sept. 7, 1960. V.61.5 MANDATORY CREDIT: Anderson Collection, Valentine Richmond History Museum.
Mrs. Carol Swann-Daniels and her husband, Jeffrey Daniels
Michael Paul Williams
As part of a tandem who desegregated the city’s public schools in 1960, you might call Carol Irene Swann and Gloria Jean Mead the Ruby Bridgeses of Richmond.
The 6-year-old Bridges would become a civil rights icon, in part because of the Norman Rockwell painting of her accompanied by U.S. marshals to her previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans. But Swann, 12, and Mead, 13, had begun experiencing racial trauma at Richmond’s Chandler Junior High School two months earlier, on Sept. 6, 1960.
“The first day of school there I was obviously terrified,” Carol Swann-Daniels recalled in a 2018 video. Arriving at North Side’s Chandler Junior High trailed by detectives — a half-hour after the opening bell, as advised by the principal — they were confronted by a group of reporters she likened to “a herd of marauding buffalo.”
The detectives stuck around the school for about two weeks to maintain order. “And once they were gone, people felt free to torture us. And they did.”
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A ring of empty seats surrounded Swann and Mead at assemblies. Fellow students assaulted them with hurled milk cartons that splattered liquid on them. During a field trip, the owners of a roadside store refused to let them in for soft drinks and to use the bathroom. White classmates would not sit in a seat they’d occupied for fear of “contamination.”
But despite all that happened around her, Carol Swann-Daniels never stopped wanting to make the world a better place, her husband, Jeffrey Daniels, said Thursday. “Carol always looks for the best in everybody.”
Mrs. Swann-Daniels, a retired educator in North Brunswick, N.J., died Monday after a period of failing health. She was 73.
Her legacy, and that of Gloria Jean Mead Jinadu, who died in 1997, remain undercelebrated in Richmond.
We need to change that.
“Children need to know not only about Ruby Bridges and the children’s march in Birmingham; they need to know who Carol Swann and Gloria Jean Mead are. Because they are heroes, too,” said Carmen Foster of Richmond, whose doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia focused on the girls.
Mrs. Swann-Daniels’ experience at Chandler was a profile in courage and an example of how young Black children were used as foot soldiers in the civil rights movement, with psychological burdens as heavy as any backpack.
Swann and Mead lived three and five blocks from the Chandler school building on Brookland Park Boulevard, which now houses Richmond Community High. “So it was really easy walking distance, although honestly, my parents were so afraid we never walked,” she recalled on the video.
Or as Jeffrey Daniels said Thursday: “It was traumatic for her but she knew, as we said back then, ‘The Black race is depending on you.’ And that’s how she took it, her and Gloria Mead.”
The abuse continued throughout the school year, largely ignored by their teachers. When they met with the principal, he told them that if they ignored the perpetrators, the mistreatment would stop. “That was not the case,” Mrs. Swann-Daniels recalled. When she and Mead moved on to John Marshall High, they endured it all over again. “It was a nightmare.”
Mrs. Swann-Daniels left Virginia for college, determined to put as much distance between herself and the South as her parents would allow. She landed at Colby College in Maine. This proximity to Canada helped create a love for Nova Scotia, where she and husband purchased several acres on the water. Her wish was to be cremated, with her ashes scattered along the Nova Scotia seaside.
Anne Holton, a former Virginia education secretary, recalled sitting on a panel with Swann commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared school segregation by race unconstitutional.
“She absolutely was a trailblazer,” Holton said Thursday.
Holton and Mrs. Swann-Daniels were part of a continuum in pushing back against Virginia’s resistance to the Brown decision. In 1970, Holton’s father, then-Gov. Linwood Holton, enrolled his children in Richmond’s predominantly Black school system when federal courts ordered desegregation.
Recalling Mrs. Swann-Daniels’ poignant recollections, such as being given bright pink bowling shoes in physical education class so that white students would know not to wear them, “The overwhelming sense was of pain and challenge,” Holton said.
This work remains unfinished, Mrs. Swann-Daniels acknowledged.
“It is a failed social experiment in the sense that there was so much hope, certainly, in the Black community that this was going to bring a sense of equality, a sense of fairness, that things would be more equal. And it didn’t happen.”
Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Educational Leadership, called Mrs. Swann-Daniels “a Richmond hero who demonstrated incredible bravery against overt white hostility.
“To honor her legacy, we have to keep courageously pressing for racial justice in public schools, striving to make them engines of opportunity for all and places where future citizens learn to participate in a multiracial democracy. This is complex, intergenerational work and it is much farther along for her example.”
Daniels said that every time they visited Virginia, his wife wanted to see the Chandler building. But “she’s never stepped back up on those stairs,” he recalled. “She’s proud of what she’s done, but I think it’s just too much.”
“It’s important for us to make sure this is never forgotten. It’s important for youth to know the reason they’re in that school is because of what happened during that time.”
Foster said it would be lovely “if the photograph that has [Mead and Swann] walking up those steps was appropriately blown up inside the school to recognize them.”
We should do that, and more.
At least two elementary schools — in California and Washington — are named for Bridges.
As RPS builds new schools or renames old ones, it would do well to remember the two brave young girls who endured so much.
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