Olivia Ferguson McQueen

Olivia Ferguson McQueen (b. 1942–)

Civil Rights Pioneer

In 1958 Olivia Ferguson McQueen, a sixteen-year-old rising senior at the all-black Jackson P. Burley High School, led a group of students in challenging school segregation in Charlottesville. After a federal district court judge ruled in the students’ favor, the governor closed the all-white Lane High School, where McQueen was to attend, rather than integrate. In January 1959, state and federal courts simultaneously ruled that closing the schools violated Virginia’s constitution. After failing to force McQueen to complete the school year at Burley, the city’s school board provided tutors in its office for her and other plaintiffs in the suit.

Despite encouragement from teachers and activists, her senior year was difficult because she was isolated from her peers and did not get to enjoy the many activities available to her counterparts. While McQueen watched her friends from Burley High receive their diplomas in June 1959, she had no ceremony and received only a makeshift certificate indicating the classes she had completed. She persevered, however, and in 1963 earned a bachelor’s degree in childhood education from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). She later earned a master’s degree in education from Trinity College, in Washington, D.C.

After spending her career as an educator outside Virginia, McQueen received her official high school diploma from the Charlottesville Public Schools on May 25, 2013. Decades after her challenge of segregation and personal sacrifice, she became a symbol of resilience and hope for the cause of equal access to education for all children.

Olivia McQueen delivers her speech at the Strong Men and Women in Virginia History event on February 5, 2014.

Primary Sources:

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

  1. How much do you think your school experience would be different if you were in a classroom by yourself, like Mrs. McQueen?
  2. Do you think being isolated from other activities would change your future decisions?