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Photo by Guy Lyons/Genesis

Miss Virginia

Black History Month | Meet the woman whose civil-rights journey stretched from Little Rock to Washington, D.C.

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

WASHINGTON-The kids in low-income D.C. neighborhoods called her Grandma Virginia, and their parents gave her the respect of calling her Miss Virginia. For years Virginia Walden Ford, 60, had a refrigerator packed with food in case any of the kids came by her modest home-and when you met her, she'd find out anything you might need so she could check if she had it. No air conditioner at your house? Take this one.

Walden Ford was first and foremost a mother, not just to her own three children but also to the children (and their parents) who received D.C. Opportunity Scholarships. Recently she moved away from Washington after 34 years and returned to her native Little Rock, Ark., where she cares for her 89-year-old mother and lives with her twin sister Harrietta Fowler. Walden Ford's story of fighting against both racism and the intransigence of liberal politicians shows how the battle for black progress has changed over the decades.

Let's take the recent fight first. Although her own children are grown, Walden Ford has fought for federally funded scholarships for low-income children in D.C. for the last 15 years. The program took off in 2004, then shut down in 2009, but is now back in place with applications outpacing available scholarships, even though administrators only had a few months to get out word of the scholarships. This past fall 745 new students enrolled in the program after Congress reopened it, bringing the total enrollment from kindergarten to 12th grade to 1,615.

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For Walden Ford, it's been a long, wearying fight against local African-American politicians, the first black president, and Democrats in Congress-a fight that perhaps only a single African-American mom like Walden Ford had the grit to handle. "The people we were fighting the most looked like us. That was tougher than anything," Walden Ford recalled as she poured a glass of juice for a guest at her house. "Not having African-American officials who supported this program was painful."

Now, the older battles: Walden Ford's family experience taught her about persistence in overcoming obstacles. Her grandmother was born into slavery, but both of her parents found ways to obtain college educations, and college is where they met. Walden Ford's father, William Harry Fowler, worked his way through school as a janitor, and eventually earned a master's degree. In 1967, when Walden Ford was 15, her dad gained appointment as the first African-American assistant superintendent of public schools in Arkansas. Her mother, Marion Virginia Fowler, was one of the first African-American teachers to teach at white elementary schools in the state.

One night, soon after Walden Ford's father started his job as assistant superintendent, the family awoke when a rock came crashing through a bedroom window, landing in the crib where Walden Ford's baby sister Renee usually slept: The baby was in bed with her parents that night. The family, rushing to see who had thrown the rock, saw a burning cross in the front yard. "I remember being so afraid that something was going to happen to my father," Walden Ford said.

At that time she was one of 130 African-Americans who had recently integrated a 900-person class at Central High in Little Rock, Ark. School clubs shut down when black students tried to join. Black and white students had separate proms. "I don't remember anything ever being happy in high school," Walden Ford said. She begged her father day after day to let her go back to the black high school. It was in her neighborhood. Her black teachers were neighbors who knew her parents personally. She had excelled at the black schools. But her father insisted that she stay at Central: Heroes had fought and sometimes died for her to have the opportunity to attend.

Walden Ford graduated, went on to get her college degree from Hampton University, and married a man with whom she had three children-but then, after a move to Washington, came divorce. As she worked two jobs at times to support the young family, one woman in her southeast D.C. neighborhood cared for the children of single moms for "next to nothing," Walden Ford remembered. Another neighbor picked up the children from school: "Everybody just looked out for each other."

Her oldest son, Michael, got straight A's and thrived, even though kids picked on him for wearing slacks and ties to school every day. Her youngest son, William, struggled much more. When he was in middle school, an honor roll student in the neighborhood received an almost-fatal beating, with the kids who beat him yelling that he thought he was so smart he was going to go to college. Walden Ford saw a change in her son after that beating: "I think it scared him. ... He decided that if he didn't act real smart ... that would somehow protect him."

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