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Civil rights pioneer among first to integrate Virginia schools dies at 75

Ron Deskins was among four Black children who crossed the color barrier at a school in Arlington in 1959. He later helped integrate Fairfax's fire department.

ARLINGTON, Va. — Virginia lost a legendary pioneer of the civil rights era Thursday, as Ron Deskins died at the age of 75. Deskins was one of four Black children who helped to integrate Virginia public schools. 

Deskins passed away after a long illness, his brother Clinton confirmed. 

Outside the now-renamed Dorothy Hamm Middle School, banners honor the four children who bravely marched inside what was then Arlington's all-white Stratford Junior High on Feb. 2, 1959. The 12-year-old Deskins kissed his mom goodbye and was escorted to class by 85 police officers. 

"I was pretty nervous that first day," Deskins said at a 2016 tribute to the four integrators. 

Newspapers dubbed it "The Day Nothing Happened," because the feared trouble never materialized. Although Deskins said he encountered a few students "who made it their business to make our lives miserable."

"They were not successful," he said. "Although they called us plenty of names."

Deskins said there was one thing he still regretted. 

"The school had sports teams, but at that time, it was illegal for Blacks and whites to participate in interscholastic sports together," he said. 

Even after the Supreme Court ruled separate schools were inherently unequal, Virginia engaged in a policy called massive resistance. It took five more years for Deskins and his three friends to break through.

"It is extremely important, and here at Dorothy Hamm Middle School, that is our expectation, for all our students and staff to know this history," Assistant Principal Lisa Moore said. "The history that took place in this building, they need to know that, and live that."

Deskins went on to help integrate the Fairfax County Fire Rescue Department, where he spent 34 years and retired as a captain. He was ailing when he returned to his old school last year to help dedicate the memorial panels. 

"Our hearts are devastated," Moore said. "This was a huge loss for our community." 

Deskins is survived by four children -- two of them teachers -- and at least a half dozen grandchildren.

Memories of his courage continue to inspire young people at the school and across the country.

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