“Make a difference,” said Olivia McQueen, one of the first high school students to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit forcing the integration of schools in Charlottesville, Virginia. McQueen spoke to several English classes during Black History Month.
As a student at Jackson P. Burley High School, McQueen had her life all planned out. She would enjoy school with her friends, graduate senior year, and eventually go on to college. Her life was set and her dreams were in order, until her father decided he wanted her to become one of the students to attend the neighboring white school, in an attempt to begin integrating Virginia’s schools.
“My parents enforced the importance of what I was doing,” said McQueen. “They empowered me as a person, and as a woman.”
The governor of Virginia refused to admit McQueen and her fellow classmate into the school, and instead ordered the school to shut down. McQueen went her entire senior year taught by black math and English tutors who volunteered to assist her in her education.
“It was a very lonely time,” said McQueen. “I was separated from [the] people I’d known since kindergarten.”
Her family even endured harsh threats and the burning of a cross on her front yard.
“I saw the burn marks in my yard,” said McQueen. “My parents were protective and tried to keep away the ugly from me.”
At the end of her senior year, McQueen had only a sheet of paper with four courses listed on it as her high school transcript, all of which said that she passed. With one sheet of paper defining her academic accomplishments, McQueen wondered whether she was going to be able to go to college. With the help of family, friends and other locals who had written her recommendation letters, McQueen was accepted into Hampton University. It was from there she went on to pursue her dreams and goals of graduating college, earning a master’s degree, getting married, and starting a family.
Over 50 years later, McQueen reflects back on her college life and notes that she tried not to think too much about the events surrounding her high school life.
“I put the [integration] experience in a box and tucked it away,” said McQueen. “There were things that were truly not pleasant.”
Now McQueen is a hero to many.
“She has done things that other people could not have,” said senior Shelbi Hines. “She kept pushing through and continued to fight for black rights even when she could have [stopped].”
McQueen encouraged Mercy students to be the change in the world they would like to see.
“Say the truth,” she said, “even if it’s just a whisper.”