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Irene Taylor McVay

Born on 5-25-1934. She was born in Farmville, VA. She is accomplished in the area of Education.
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Irene Taylor: Student Activist

Irene Taylor and her best friend Barbara Johns grew up in rural Virginia. In 1951, they were seniors at Robert Russo Moton High School in Farmville. Their schools, busses, theaters, water fountains and society were segregated. Inspired by the lessons their parents, pastors and peers taught them, they decided it was time to challenge the longstanding doctrine of "separate but equal." Their humble efforts inspired the modern student civil rights movement.

Taylor and Johns organized the first student-led, non-violent walk-out protesting segregation in the United States. Immediately, their parents supported their movement. Soon thereafter the NAACP took up the mantle of their case.

Taylor and Johns' walk-out predated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Park's arrest, the lynching of Emmett Till, the integration of the Little Rock public schools, the Sit-ins at Woolworths, the Freedom Riders and it re-ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement. The goal of their walkout was to end segregation in Prince Edward County Public Schools and they succeeded. In 1954, Taylor and Johns' walkout was one of the five cases heard as a part of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Taylor and Johns' plan was well orchestrated and coordinated by passing notes during in class. Students left school and went to the bus station in town. Once there, the students called the school, pretended to be the bus station manager and convinced the principal to come retrieve the 'delinquent' students and take them back to school.

While the principal was out of the building, Barbara Johns commandeered the PA system and called the entire school to the auditorium where she informed her classmates and teachers, with Irene Taylor by her side, of their plans to protest segregation. The students picketed their own school for the rest of the day carrying signs that read, "Down with tar-paper shacks" and "We want a new school or none at all." The Farmville 11 met with the Superintendent the next day. During their conversations, the Superintendent threatened to put all parents in jail. Barbara Johns responded, "There's not a jail in the whole county that can hold us all."

After the walk-out, schools remained closed throughout the end of the academic year. Many seniors did not graduate despite the local churches holding classes in lieu of their public schools being closed.

Thurgood Marshall held a series of community forums in the Prince Edward County School District in preparation for an NAACP led Supreme Court challenge to the 'separate but equal' doctrine. Unbeknownst to Taylor and Johns, their humble steps to fight segregation helped changed the course of American history. The unanimous final decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled:

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group...

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

?Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1954

The early 1950s were clearly the time when students across the United States were going to fight to achieve their 14th Amendment right to equal protection, but the Farmville 11 were the first students to take direct action against segregation. Their actions changed the course of American history.

Irene Taylor: Educator

After high school, Irene Taylor moved to Buffalo to start her career. She married Jim McVay in 1959 after meeting at the Saint Luke AME Zion church. Together, they had four children, Janet, James, Joy and Jeffrey. Now Irene McVay, she started working at for the Buffalo Public Schools. It was at School 4 where Mrs. McVay first decorated hallways and hosted assemblies celebrating Black History Month in the same manner she was accustomed to seeing the halls of the Robert Russo Moton decorated during her youth.

Tragedy struck America and the Civil Rights movement suffered a tremendous loss when Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The following year, McVay organized an assembly commemorating Dr. King's life while celebrating his legacy. This program, known as the "Keeping the Dream Alive" assembly, traveled with McVay when she moved to School 17 and ultimately to City Honors and continues to this day. Principal Mike Anelli awarded McVay the first ever "Keeping the Dream Alive" faculty award in 1991 as a recognition of her lifelong efforts celebrating Black History and serving Buffalo's students.

Throughout the years, McVay coordinated a history challenge every February. Each morning, students were asked a question about an important African American or historical event. No matter how many students knew the answer, no matter their age, even if they did not always know the correct answer, every student received a prize for their efforts. In addition to her love of African American history, McVay also promoted African culture and was the founder of the City Honors African Dance Troupe.

Irene Taylor McVay's tireless contributions to the Buffalo Public Schools earned her the distinction of Teacher's Aide of Year in 1989. Mrs. McVay retired from Buffalo Public Schools in 2005. In retirement, she continued to serve the children of Buffalo as a volunteer in the Kindergarten classes at BUILD academy and was a featured speaker at McKinley High School's annual Black History Month "Teachable Moment."

Mrs. McVay credits her strength in fighting for what is right to her family, but to her father in particular. McVay said of her father, "He was not a talker, he was a doer." She described him as an extraordinary man who was never tired and seemed to be working all the time. She lamented never seeing movies at the local theater stating, "My daddy would never pay the same ten cents for a movie only to have his children sit in segregated seats in the balcony." He was generous and giving, always willing to help a neighbor even if it meant taking food from his own family's table so that his neighbors would not go hungry. He visited his widowed grandmother every day and at any hour of the night. Mrs. McVay's grandfather on her mother's side had been born in slavery and had purchased the family farm after his emancipation with the help of his former owner.

Reflecting on her lifetime of struggle for equality through education, Mrs. McVay reminded future student leaders that, "It never stops. You have to keep going." As a student, a student-activist, an educator in Buffalo Public Schools and as a volunteer in retirement, McVay fought inequity her entire life and believes firmly that, "There's no such thing as separate and equal. Either we work together or we are never going to be equal."

Submitted by: John McTigue