Many were the soldiers in the long and hard struggle for Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s. Some we remember, some we don’t.
One warrior who has slipped through the cracks of time is Armistead Boothe. A native son of Alexandria, he led efforts to integrate the segregated schools in Virginia. Let’s take a brief look at his story.
One of the best sources of info on Boothe is an essay by J. Douglas Smith. “When Reason Collides with Prejudice: Armistead Lloyd Boothe and the Politics of Moderation” is one of several excellent essays in “The Moderates' Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia” by Matthew D. Lassiter.
Also helpful was an article by Megan Rosenfeld (“He Was Right Too Soon,” The Washington Post, July 30, 1978) as well as other reports in The Washington Post and Washington Evening Star. A guiding light is Encyclopedia Virginia.
I would like to thank two individuals whose offices are located at 711 Princess Street. Boothe was born and raised there and would be pleased to see the loving care the home-turned-office-space receives. Johan van Zyl, Director of International Projects with Classical Movements showed me the property and introduced me to Rob Whittle. Whittle recounted his interactions with Boothe, describing him as a true Southern gentleman. Whittle purchased 711 Princess Street from Boothe in 1984.
Armistead Boothe (1907-1990) was an Alexandrian through and through. Born, raised and buried in the city, he attended Christ Church and graduated from Episcopal High School in Alexandria. Known affectionately as “Army,” Boothe was born in and grew up at the family home at 711 Princess Street, a brick home that stands out with five windows wide. Its birthday of more than 200 years is something rare west of Washington Street.
The Boothe family name reaches back to the heady days of the seaport. Boothe’s father, Gardner Lloyd Boothe, was also a native son of Alexandria. For over 50 years, he was active in the highest ranks of the Democratic Party (Note: In those days the Democratic Party was conservative).
Boothe joined his father’s law firm ("Boothe, Dudley, Koontz, and Boothe") in 1931. Three years later, while studying as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, Boothe met and married Elizabeth Ravenel Peele, a fellow ex-pat visiting England from Washington, D.C.
In 1935, Boothe became a member of the Alexandria Democratic Committee and three years later served as city attorney. From 1939-1945, he served his country during World War II as a naval air combat intelligence officer.
Boothe might have followed in his father’s conservative footsteps, but his exposure to African Americans during the war enlightened him. Returning home, he was elected in 1947 to the Virginia house (Democrat), the start of a distinguished career that was often at odds with the arch-conservative “Byrd Machine.” Led by Senator Harry F. Byrdd Sr. (1887–1966), “The Organization” as it was called, ruled Virginia politics from the 1930s to the 1960s. These “Dixiecrats,” which drew strength from the rural counties in the Commonwealth, fought tooth and nail to prevent the integration of the state’s public schools.
Boothe knew what he was up against. Lining up with other younger legislatures who had returned from the war (dubbed “The Young Turks), he would have to try and work within the conservative Democratic party.
In 1949, Boothe wrote “Civil Rights in Virginia,” published in the Virginia Law Review. In it, he called for the establishment of a Virginia Civil Rights Commission to “study economic, educational and other conditions and to recommend correction of abuses” (Virginia Law Review, Volume 35, accessed through JSTOR).
“The subject of Civil Rights must be faced openly and squarely by the people of Virginia,” Booth wrote.
He concluded by saying:
“Our legislature might consider the desirability, from a practical as well as from a constitutional standpoint, of repealing the state segregation laws affecting all forms of transportation.”
In 1950, Boothe sponsored a bill to end segregation on common carriers and establish a study on race relations. Blocked by the Bryd machine, the bill did not pass.
Boothe lost these early battles, but he was earning respect and laying groundwork. Benjamin Muse, author of "Virginia’s Massive Resistance," described him as a “clear voice of liberalism within the ranks of the conservative Byrd organization.” Black church leaders and the NAACP also praised him.
Such attention, however, was a doubled-edged sword. Playing to the fears of their constituents, his conservative opponents would use such praise against him. In certain parts of the state, prejudicial attitudes towards African Americans were still very strong.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. Their decision outlawed segregation in the schools. More than that, it set the groundwork for ending the so-called “Separate, But Equal” way of life for blacks in the South.
The Byrd Machine was very powerful, however, and the walls they had built would not come down easy. Citing states rights, Byrd spearheaded an effort that became known as “Massive Resistance” to the court-ordered desegregation.
Byrd also authored the “Southern Manifesto” that outlined their strategy. Virginia Governor Thomas B. Stanley instituted legislation to close any schools facing federal desegregation orders. Newly elected governor J. Lindsay Almond picked up the mantle and closed schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk and Front Royal.
Elected to the Virginia Senate and representing Alexandria once again, Booth played a role in fighting these policies. He chaired the “Virginia Society for Preservation of Public Education.” Booth won re-election in 1959, against fellow Alexandrian Marshall Beverly, a strong moral victory for the moderates and progressives.
Boothe, however, paid a heavy price for his continued work against Jim Crow. The Ku Klux Klan shadowed him. Despite his calls for “gradual, partial and localized integration,” he was labeled “a dangerous extremist.” Smith points out “the sad part was that friends began to shy away as if he had the plaque.”
The Virginia court’s decisions finally ended the Massive Resistance movement. Throughout the 60s, the schools in the state were slowly integrated. In 1961, Boothe ran for Lieutenant Governor against Mills E. Godwin, Jr. Boothe had support in northern Virginia, but the Byrd-backed Godwin won the seat.
In 1966, Boothe returned to the political arena and ran for the U.S. Senate. His opponent was Harry F. Byrd, Jr. whose father, the legend in Virginia politics, had retired. Boothe lost in a close race - 221,221 to 212, 996.
Retiring for good from politics and his law practice, Boothe gave his time and talents to the Virginia Theological Seminary. He served six years at the school on the hill overlooking Alexandria, helping to raise funds and assisting the school dean. His home and office was on Vicar Lane, just south of T.C. Williams High School.
In 1987, Carlyle Murphy (The Washington Post, February 21, 1987) interviewed Boothe and his wife Bettie for an article on the Seminary Hill area. Boothe said he and 14 others bought the Chapel Hill portion in 1940. When the city asked for street names they gave them Vicar and Bishop.
In 1990, Boothe passed away at a retirement home in Falls Church. He was laid to rest in the small, hillside cemetery at VTS, alongside other notable Alexandrians such as Julia Johns, who founded the Alexandria Infirmary.
In addition to his obituary, The Washington Post published two loving rememberances.
One said –
He was all that – but above all, the chronicles must show for the generations of Virginians to come what formidable contributor Armistead Boothe was to racial reconciliation in his state in the 20th century.
Earl C. Dudley wrote an article titled, "The Man for the Moment: Army Boothe gave Virginians, black and white, the courage to stand together against forces of racial division."
Yet it is to Boothe more than any other human being that Virginians of today owe the progressive strain in our government that helped elect L. Douglas Wilder governor last fall.
Booth himself had written and spoken many words in a life’s work. His last as an elected official came as his parting words on the senate floor in Richmond.
You are content with what Virginia has done. We look forward to what she can do. You feel she is a way of life which must be preserved as nearly intact as possible. We feel Virginia is a living society who must change and grow in leadership in a living world. The intellectual and moral wealth of Virginia is desperately needed by our Nation in determining, guiding, directing – not just accepting – the course of history.
In September 2001, the City of Alexandria dedicated a new, 5-acre park in recognition of Boothe. Its location beside Samuel W. Tucker School holds a special meaning.
As their press release noted,
The park’s location as well as its namesake are significant in Alexandria and Virginia’s history. Samuel E. Tucker and “Army” Boothe both worked hard for desegregation and now have public places named for them at adjacent locations.
I walked the park this past weekend and did not see a historical marker. I have also not seen one for Boothe elsewhere.