Recognizing a Moment in History
A plaza on the Fairfax Campus that has been dedicated in honor of former Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton Jr., will be a space that Mason students frequently pass through on their way to class. That makes for a fitting tribute, because it was a walk to school that Holton took with one of his daughters a half-century ago that helped alter the course of race relations in Virginia.
Court-ordered busing to integrate schools was a controversial issue when Holton took office as governor in 1970. Instead of sending their children to a school near the Executive Mansion, Holton and his wife Virginia enrolled them at predominately black Richmond schools.
Holton recalls that decision as “a thrilling opportunity.” It made national news. The New York Times ran a front-page photo of Holton walking daughter Tayloe to her first day of classes at formerly all-black Kennedy High School.
“It gave me the opportunity to demonstrate by action as well as words that we believe in what’s required by the Constitution of the United States and that all people regardless of race have equal opportunity,” Holton said in an oral history he recorded for the Mason libraries.
Holton, 92, was on hand at the ceremony in April, when the green space adjacent to the Center for the Arts was dedicated as Holton Plaza. One of his daughters, Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton, was there, along with prominent university supporters from throughout Mason’s history.
“As children of the governor, we could have easily continued attending our all-white schools in the West End [of Richmond]. Instead, we decided as a family to put our dad’s words into action."
Anne Holton, daughter of former Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton, Jr.
Holton, who in 1972 signed the legislation that granted Mason its independence from the University of Virginia, received the Mason Medal in 2010. The university recently established the A. Linwood Holton Jr. Leadership Scholarship, to be awarded to students with excellent academic credentials who have overcome barriers to academic success, demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities or have helped others overcome discrimination in any facet of life.
Anne Holton was a middle school student when her father became governor. Her mother escorted her and her brother, Woody, to a formerly segregated Richmond school, now named after Martin Luther King, Jr.
“As a student, I remember doing all the normal things a student would do, but with an extra sense of purpose. It was the first time I can remember being a part of something bigger than myself, and the experience helped make me the person I am today,” Anne Holton said.
Holton set the tone for his term in office during his inaugural address when he declared, “The era of defiance is behind us. ... Let us now endeavor to make today’s Virginia a model in race relations.” He appointed African Americans to prominent roles in his administration and worked for fair hiring practices for minorities and women.
“Governor Holton took a brave and progressive stance and demonstrated through his decisive leadership a firm commitment to social justice,” Mason president Ángel Cabrera said. “His advocacy of inclusion and accessibility are felt to this day in classrooms and work places across the commonwealth.”