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Retired Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department Captain Ron Deskins died Thursday. The many tributes on the retirees Facebook group are a beautiful testament to his career, his leadership and his friendship. Deskins left his mark on the department and was seen as a mentor to many. But Ron Deskins also left his mark on the entire Commonwealth of Virginia, playing a key role in an important chapter in its history.
At age 12, in February 1959, Deskins was one of four students to integrate Virginia public schools. That’s Deskins second to the left in the picture above walking into what was then Arlington County’s Stratford Junior High School.
I met Ron Deskins a few times but didn’t really know him. Still, I knew his history from reading about Virginia’s integration battles when I first moved to Arlington in 1981. The Deskins family story always stuck with me because of one particularly ugly encounter. The building I then lived in, The Representative on Arlington Ridge Road, was built by the family of longtime 10th District Congressman Joel Broyhill. Broyhill was well thought of in Arlington for his support of federal workers and excellent constituent services. Upon reading about Broyhill’s unannounced visit to some constituents — the Deskins family of Halls Hill — I have a different opinion of the late lawmaker. The purpose of the drop by was intimidation. Broyhill wanted to let Carroll Deskins know that being involved in a school integration lawsuit could put his job at Arlington County’s Black fire station in jeopardy. As Ron Deskins told Les Shaver at Arlington Magazine, “[My father] had a lot to lose [since] he had a very secure position. But he asked the congressman to leave—and kept his job.”
For almost five years after Brown v. Board of Education Virginia was hanging on to its segregated schools. Ron Deskins walking through that school door with Michael Jones, Gloria Thompson and Lance Newman helped begin bringing the wildly misnamed “separate but equal” concept to an end. It couldn’t have been easy but it likely prepared Deskins when 14 years later he became only the fifth Black firefighter employed by Fairfax County. Just two years after his hiring Deskins helped found Northern Virginia Minority Firefighters Combined.
Stratford Junior High on Vacation Lane is now Dorothy Hamm Middle School. Hamm was an important civil rights figure in Virginia. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Deskins and the others are well remembered on campus with a plaque, a mural and an outdoor walkway — the Stratford Commemorative Trail — that includes larger than life images of each of the children.
Ron Deskins served the citizens of Fairfax County and his fellow firefighters well during his career. But his service to all of Virginia and our nation began the day he was thrust into a role that a long history of enormous cruelty, hate and prejudice required 12 year olds to fill.