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Editor's pick:Breaking through ‘the walls of fear’

She helped integrate Spotsylvania schools – and ODU

By Denise Watson

Not that Sharon McGlone '75 needed any reminders to take her back to August 1963. But last year's protests against systemic racism brought back the bracing waves of anger and isolation, and also the resolve, McGlone felt nearly 60 years ago.

As a 9-year-old, she and six other African American girls integrated Spotsylvania County Public Schools in Virginia.

McGlone recalls being the only Black in class reading textbooks depicting slaves with huge smiles picking cotton.

"I remember having these puzzling feelings of why are they smiling while they are picking cotton all day in the sun?" McGlone said in her Norfolk home. "Even as a 9-year-old, I knew something wasn't right. There was no talk about slavery or the enslaved or injustice."

That's why she lectures about her role as a pigtailed pioneer - an experience that also prepared her to be among the few African American students at ODU when she enrolled in 1972.

"I had to break through the same walls of fear and isolation," McGlone said.

She was born in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unequal. She was learning how to read in 1958 when Virginia closed several schools to avoid integration.

McGlone was among the youngest of the seven pioneers in Spotsylvania - four fourth-graders, one eighth-grader and two 11th-graders.

The children were trained to not react to the harassment that was expected.

McGlone remembers four golden rules: Be a good girl, make good grades, represent your family well, and if you were called a name, stay quiet.

Her young brain wondered, "What name would I be called, if not my name?"

She learned soon enough.

To McGlone, that first day of school, Aug. 29, 1963, could have been last week. The impressions are still so fresh.

She and her three friends were walked into the auditorium of Robert E. Lee Elementary School while the white students stared. Each was then escorted to her class.

As her fourth-grade teacher pointed to a seat for McGlone, a boy announced: "My mama told me not to sit next to a -," and he spat out a racial slur.

The teacher snapped back: "That word will never be used again in my classroom, and she will sit where I tell her to sit."

McGlone found comfort in her teacher's words. But they didn't protect her from words like "coon" and "monkey" she and the others heard in the hallways. Some classmates held their noses when she passed as if she smelled bad.

One day, she and her friends tried to go to a Girl Scout troop meeting and had to wait outside. Finally, they were told the meeting was canceled.

"We knew what that meant," McGlone said. "It was canceled for us."

The isolation, McGlone said, was balanced by the support she received from her family and the community. She was also supported by the sense she was a part of something bigger than herself and her loneliness.

McGlone attended the school for two years before the Army reassigned her father. The family eventually returned to Spotsylvania County, where McGlone graduated from high school with honors.

While her father had been stationed in Hampton Roads, McGlone had seen ODU's campus and liked it. ODU eventually offered her the best scholarship package, too.

As when she was younger, she was often the only Black in her classes and one of fewer than 10 living in Rogers Hall. The students became a tight-knit squad that left its mark on campus.

McGlone, who majored in psychology, was a charter member of the first African American Greek organization at ODU, Delta Sigma Theta, which formed in 1974. The Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity soon followed.

"We started to have a life, a social life, at Old Dominion," she said.

Saturday night dances at Webb Center began to mix Motown tunes in with rock, and the Deltas started putting on step shows.

She graduated early in 1975 and married a classmate, Craig "Zeke" McGlone '75, later that year. He served in the Army before retiring in 2006.

Two of their four children are also ODU graduates - Anthony '01 and Beth '12.

She created a career that made others feel included and supported. As a social worker right out of ODU, she set up parenting and self-esteem classes for struggling families in Ocean View in Norfolk. McGlone later taught middle school English and technology and retired as an instructional technology specialist with Norfolk Public Schools in 2019.

In January, the Spotsylvania County School Board voted to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School, which she helped desegregate 58 years ago. That the name has remained this long isn't lost on the woman who as a little girl worked to advance change.

The marches, the protests "started because we were like, 'This is enough!'" McGlone said. "But it's always been enough."

Denise Watson, a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot, was named Outstanding Journalist of the Year last year by the Virginia Press Association.