Obama thanks Olivia Ferguson McQueen for her help desegregating Virginia schools

Published on Author VA5

On election night in 2008, Olivia Ferguson McQueen held her breath. It wasn’t about politics. She watched the numbers anxiously all night, then gasped, shocked and elated to see an African-American elected president of the United States.

It felt personal, and communal, for her, an all-but-unknown civil rights pioneer. As a young girl in Virginia in the 1950s, she was a reluctant but resolute plaintiff in a lawsuit her parents helped bring challenging the segregated schools in Charlottesville. When a court ordered then-all-white schools to admit the black plaintiffs, the governor shut down the schools rather than comply. So Olivia Ferguson, 16 at the time, spent her senior year in the school board office with one other student and an occasional tutor. In the end, she was given just a makeshift certificate listing courses she had completed.

Last month, more than 50 years later, she was honored in Charlottesville and finally given a high-school diploma.