Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Fendall Ragland Ellis (5 March 1910–8 May 1986), educator, was born in Chesterfield County and was the son of Dora James Chalkley Ellis and Robert Benjamin Ellis, a farmer and carpenter. He graduated from the College of William and Mary with an A.B. in 1931, after which he taught history at Hopewell High School. Ellis left in 1934 to study at the University of Virginia and received an M.A. the following year. In 1936 he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps as an educational adviser and two years later became an assistant high school principal in South Norfolk (later part of Chesapeake). From 1940 to 1945 Ellis served as director of public instruction in Pittsylvania County and in the latter year was appointed superintendent of Wythe County's public school system. There he met Mary Marie Felts, whom he married in Radford on 16 August 1947. They had one son.

In 1953 the Charlottesville school board appointed Ellis superintendent of the city's public schools. A year later the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. On 7 May 1956 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People named Ellis and the Charlottesville school board as defendants in a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of forty-three black students denied admission to all-white public schools in the city. Ellis sought guidance from the governor several days later. Subsequently the school board hired John Stewart Battle, a former governor and Charlottesville resident, to represent the board at the state's expense. As the suit made its way through the courts, state officials scrambled for a plan to combat court-ordered desegregation. Implementing a policy of Massive Resistance, the General Assembly adopted laws in August 1956 designed to prevent racial integration, including one requiring the governor to close any school that desegregated its facilities. These state actions forced local school officials such as Ellis into a no-win situation. If school officials refused federal court orders to integrate, they could be fined or imprisoned; but if they obeyed the court orders, the state would shut down their schools.

From the beginning Ellis and other school officials made it clear that they would use all legal options available to resist, and later stall, desegregation. After an initial ruling on 7 August 1956 that Charlottesville had to integrate its public schools, attorneys appealed to the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the original ruling. Following the failure to obtain a hearing before the Supreme Court of the United States, the Charlottesville school board turned to the State Pupil Placement Board, created by the General Assembly to divest local school officials of the authority to assign students to public schools. The act establishing the board was soon declared unconstitutional, and in September 1958 a federal judge ordered Ellis to transfer black students to Charlottesville's Lane High School and Venable Elementary School, which the governor promptly closed. On 19 January 1959 the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Massive Resistance legislation violated the state constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution. Ellis reopened Lane and Venable on a segregated basis for the remainder of the school year.

Ellis assumed responsibility for implementing a court-ordered desegregation plan, but he used his position to limit the scope and effects of school integration in Charlottesville. Each summer, beginning in 1959, he assigned a small number of black students to previously all-white schools based on stringent academic and geographic criteria. The NAACP, frustrated by the deliberately slow pace and incomplete implementation of desegregation, filed new rounds of litigation. On 17 September 1962 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals finally invalidated the pupil assignment plan of which Ellis was the principal agent, although desegregation struggles continued in Charlottesville for the rest of the decade. In March 1960 Ellis attended the United States Commission on Civil Rights conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to discuss with other educators desegregation in Charlottesville. He submitted a written statement to the commission reviewing the court proceedings and testified that integration had proceeded without demonstrations or incidents.

During Ellis's ten years as superintendent, Charlottesville's school system expanded from six to nine buildings, the number of teachers increased from 160 to 254, the percentage of teachers with college degrees climbed to 94 percent, and teachers' average minimum salaries rose from $2,200 to $4,000. Ellis served on the State Superintendent's Advisory Council and as president of the Virginia Committee for the Advancement of School Administrators for the 1961–1962 term. He was also president of the Charlottesville Children's Service Center. On 22 March 1963 Ellis was named director of research and pilot studies at the Virginia Department of Education, in Richmond, and two years later he became director of the department's division of special services. Promoted to special assistant for school evaluation and planning in July 1968, Ellis evaluated public school systems in numerous cities and counties around the state. Five years later he became the assistant superintendent for program development.

Ellis retired from the Department of Education in 1975 but continued to work on educational issues. On 8 May 1986, while giving a speech in Richmond at a meeting of the Institute for Lifetime Learning, Fendall Ragland Ellis suffered a heart attack, collapsed, and died later that day at a local hospital. He was buried at Sunset Memorial Park, in Chester.

Sources Consulted:
Birth date in Social Security application, Social Security Administration, Office of Earnings Operations, Baltimore, Md.; marriage date confirmed by Virginia Division of Vital Records and Health Statistics; biographical information in Virginia Journal of Education 47 (Sept. 1953): 40–41 (portrait), and ibid. 56 (May 1963): 37; correspondence in Papers of the Charlottesville Committee for Public Education (1958–1960), Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.; publications include Ellis, Paul H. Cale, and W. H. Flanagan, "Education in Jefferson's Country," Virginia Record 77 (Oct. 1955): 21, 34–36, 48, and Ellis, "Research—A Key to Educational Progress," Virginia Journal of Education 57 (May 1964): 9–11; Charlottesville Daily Progress, 1 July 1953, 26 Aug., 9 Sept. 1958, 8 Aug. 1960, 22, 23 Mar. 1963; Dallas Randall Crowe, "Desegregation of Charlottesville, Virginia, Public Schools, 19541969: A Case Study" (Ed.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1971); obituaries in Charlottesville Daily Progress, Richmond News Leader, and Richmond Times-Dispatch (with erroneous place of death), all 9 May 1986.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Thomas M. Hanna.

How to cite this page:
Thomas M. Hanna,"Fendall Ragland Ellis (1910–1986)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Ellis_Fendall_Ragland, accessed [today's date]).

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