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First black graduate of Floyd County High shares triumphs, challenges

Daisy Penn was one of 13 students to integrate Floyd, Check high schools

FLOYD, Va. – It was January of 1960, and 13 African-American students in Floyd County were poised to make history. 

When they walked into Floyd County High School and Check High School that day, they became the first black students to integrate a white high school in Floyd County. 

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A then 17-year-old Daisy Penn, a Floyd native, would later become the first black student to graduate from an integrated high school in southwest Virginia and the second across the state.

"Busing 44 miles per day to go to school, to me it didn't really make sense," Penn said.

Black students in Floyd County and many surrounding counties had to take long bus rides to attend high school at Christiansburg Institute. The institute was initally founded in 1866 to educate former slaves. Booker T. Washington, a renowned leader, educator and author in the U.S., served as an adviser to the institute starting in the late 19th century. 

SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM DAISY'S JOURNEY

"It kind of reminded me of a college because we had to change buildings," Penn said.

The push to integrate Floyd County schools started in May of 1959 with 14 families initially, including Penn's, and the legal expertise of NAACP attorney Reuben Lawson. 

"My parents, some of the others, we had to go to court in Roanoke two or three times just to get in over there," Penn said.

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Their legal fight paid off. Four months later, a judge ruled that Floyd County and Check high schools must integrate.

"I'm just glad it happened, just should have happened sooner," Penn said.

It was front-page news when Penn and seven other students walked through the doors at Floyd County High School, now Floyd Elementary School. Penn said integration in Floyd was relatively quiet.

"There was a lot of name-calling but I just let it go in one ear and out the other," Penn said.  "For Floyd, we didn't have any problems like I've seen on TV and all. Fighting, we didn't have anything like that." 

Penn said she already knew some of the white students she started going to school with in 1960, and she felt that improved the integration process.

"I knew it would be something different, but it wasn't as bad as I thought because I knew a lot of them that went over there by being close to town," Penn said.

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In June of 1960, Penn became the first African-American student to graduate from an integrated high school in southwest Virginia and only the second across the entire state.

"At least we got what we had to accomplish, so that was the main thing," Penn said.

The 76-year-old said she wouldn't change anything about her experience.

"If I had to do it again, it would be no problem," Penn said.


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