By Katy June-Friesen
“We may observe with much sadness and irony that, outside of Africa, south of the Sahara, where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.” —Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, 1963
At the center of Virginia is the tiny town of Farmville in Prince Edward County. During the civil rights movement, there were no snarling dogs here, no fire hoses or billy clubs, no lunch counters that made the front page. Driving through the town today, it’s hard to imagine it as a stage for conflict.
Surrounded by hilly farmland, Farmville is the county seat and, at around 8,500 people, the largest town in a fifty-mile radius. Old brick warehouses that once housed tobacco and a shoe factory lie at one end of Main Street on the Appomattox River. Near the center of town stands a bronze Confederate soldier, a monument to Civil War veterans. Up the hill on the edge of town, past historic storefronts and churches, past Longwood College, sits the Robert Russa Moton Museum, Virginia’s only National Historic Landmark of the civil rights movement.
For some Farmville residents, the building, constructed in 1939 to house an all-black high school, reminds them of an era they’d rather forget. For others, it commemorates a thirteen-year legal struggle that should not be forgotten. For many, it has become a place to begin talking about what happened in Prince Edward County in the 1950s and ’60s.
In 1951, long before well-known actions such as the Montgomery bus boycott, students at Moton High School went on strike to protest inadequate facilities. Eventually, these students became plaintiffs in one of the five cases that were part of Brown v. Board of Education.
After the 1954 Brown ruling, there were efforts across the South to block integration. In Virginia, the governor closed public schools in several cities to prevent them from integrating. In 1959, the courts ruled that the closings were unconstitutional, and those schools reopened—at the same time, Prince Edward County refused to integrate and locked its doors.
For five years, Prince Edward schools remained closed while legal challenges bounced between courts. During that time, most white children attended the new private school created by segregationist leaders and funded by state tuition grants and private donations. About 1,700 black and lower-income white students tried to find schooling elsewhere or stayed home, waiting.
The Prince Edward story is not so well known because it doesn’t have “the essential ingredients of a standard civil rights story,” writes Christopher Bonastia in Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia. “Face-to-face confrontations in the streets, sometimes spiked with gruesome violence, lured pens and cameras to the Deep South. Rhetorical clashes in courtrooms, and the quiet suffering of locked-out children in the Upper South, provided little competition.”
The Moton Museum is a national museum, but it is also a museum for Prince Edwardians. Since it opened in 2001, it has hosted events and discussions about the civil rights era. More people are talking about that time as individuals instead of talking about the white group experience and the black group experience, says Lacy Ward Jr., director of the museum, who has family roots in Prince Edward.
Ward has tried hard to challenge the idea that a civil rights museum is inevitably a black history museum. “A civil rights museum is a public policy museum,” he says, and the new permanent exhibit tells the public policy story of Prince Edward’s transition from segregation to integration. It also aims to tell the story of what happened to all the children when the schools closed. To do this, the exhibit—which winds through the school’s old classrooms—relies heavily on first-person accounts. Prince Edwardians will see people they know on the walls, Ward says.
Separate but unequal
In 1951, Farmville had a white high school and a black high school. Farmville High School, the white school, had plenty of classrooms and a gymnasium, cafeteria, infirmary, and other resources. Robert Russa Moton High School, named for the Prince Edward native who succeeded Booker T. Washington as president of the Tuskegee Institute, had none of these. School supplies were secondhand and spread thin, and more than 450 students were packed into a facility originally built for 180.
“We held two or three classes in the auditorium most of the time, one on the stage and two in the back,” former Moton principal M. Boyd Jones told journalist Bob Smith in 1961. “We even held some classes in a bus.” Classes also met in several tar-paper shacks, which county officials had constructed instead of a new school. The shacks leaked, and the potbelly stoves that were supposed to keep children warm did not provide adequate heat.
Despite all this, it was a tight-knit school community, and the teachers had high expectations for their students and their futures. Moton parents, including community leader and local NAACP chapter president Reverend L. Francis Griffin, tried to get a new school built, but the board of supervisors stalled, refusing to appropriate funds or finalize a plot of land on which to build.
This frustrated Barbara Johns, a sixteen-year-old junior at Moton. She came from a family of intellectuals and independent thinkers. Her uncle, Vernon Johns, who was pastor at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church at the time, was an outspoken civil rights advocate. Barbara’s mother said in 1961, “Anything she believed in she was determined to continue to believe in, and if you wanted to change her mind you had to give a lot of reasons.”
Johns talked to her teacher, Miss Inez Davenport, about her frustrations. “I told her how sick and tired I was of the inadequate building and facilities and how I wished to hell (I know I wasn’t this profane in speaking to her but that’s how I felt) something could be done about it,” Barbara later wrote. “After hearing me out she asked simply, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ I recall smiling at her, dropping the subject, and going about my other activities. But I didn’t forget that statement, for it stuck with me for several days and out of it was conceived the idea of the strike.”
On the morning of April 23, 1951, Jones got an anonymous call that two Moton students were hanging around downtown. He got in his car and drove to find them. The call had been a ruse to get him out of the building. Meanwhile, teachers received notes to each classroom that called everyone to an emergency assembly in the auditorium.
Student leader John Stokes, in his 2008 memoir, Students on Strike, writes, “By the time all the students arrived in the auditorium, the members of the strike committee were sitting on the stage behind a drawn curtain. When the curtain opened, I stood up and got the students to quiet down. We opened the assembly with the Pledge of Allegiance. Then we said the Lord’s Prayer and sang a song.” The strike committee asked all teachers to leave and Johns rallied the student body, imploring them not to accept the conditions of the school. The plan? To strike until they got what they wanted. Most students were on board immediately. That afternoon they stayed on the school grounds, carrying placards with demands such as “We are tired of tar paper shacks—we want a new school.”
The next day, the student committee met with Superintendent Thomas McIlwaine at the courthouse to present their demands. McIlwaine, who believed the students had been “set up” by adults, threatened them with expulsion and told them their teachers would be fired if they didn’t go back to school. He also promised them a new Moton High School.
That was all the strikers wanted, at first. “It never entered my mind at that time that this would turn out to be a school desegregation suit,” Johns said in a 1959 interview. “We didn’t know of such things. We were thinking that the school would be improved, or at best, that we would get a new school.”
The students decided to contact the NAACP in Richmond for help. Attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson were reluctant to visit Farmville. How serious were these Moton students? What kind of community support did they have? The strike occurred just as the NAACP legal strategy was changing. Lawyers had been filing cases that took on unequal facilities for black students. But convinced that separate would never be equal, the organization began attacking the legality of segregation itself. Prince Edward was to become part of this new fight.
When Hill and Robinson met with the strike committee at Griffin’s church, they realized how determined the students were. Hill recalled in 1957, “They handled themselves so well and their morale was so high that we didn’t have the heart to say no. We said if their parents would support them we would back them up.” However, the students would have to change their demands. If the NAACP was to take their case, the lawyers said, the goal would have to be desegregation.
About one thousand parents and students packed the Moton auditorium to discuss the possible lawsuit. At least one parent spoke out against the students’ actions, but in the end they agreed to approve whatever action the NAACP thought was necessary.
On May 3, the NAACP attorneys filed a petition with the Prince Edward County School Board to desegregate the schools. That night, at a rally to solidify support at Griffin’s First Baptist, the students told the crowd they would return to school. Stokes remembers there were police checkpoints encircling the town, and state troopers were directing traffic. “I was a little surprised because we had not publicized the meeting,” he writes. “But I should have realized the white authorities would know about it.”
Indeed, Farmville’s leaders were starting to take the situation seriously. Initially, Farmville Herald publisher and town council member J. Barrye Wall casually dismissed the “student-inspired mass hookie.” By the time the petition was filed, Wall was accusing outside agitators of initiating the strike.
Robinson, Johns, and Griffin spoke to the crowd at First Baptist, urging them to stay committed to the fight ahead. When former Moton principal J. B. Pervall, who was opposed to the strike, questioned the new desegregation strategy, Johns got up to speak again. “Don’t let Mr. Charlie, Mr. Tommy, or Mr. Pervall stop you from backing us,” she said. Griffin added, “Anybody who won’t fight against racial prejudice is not a man.”
White residents’ reactions were mixed. Strike committee member John Watson learned later that some supported the strike. “Several of them told me that,” he says. But they feared retaliation by segregationist leaders and threats to their jobs and businesses. When it became clear that the black community planned to sustain a serious civil rights campaign, white leaders began a campaign of economic and social intimidation. But the absence of outright violence in Prince Edward from the time of the strike through the sixties is something white and black residents are proud of to this day.
Community leaders saw themselves as more civilized and progressive than residents of the Deep South. As Jill Titus writes in Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia, “Virginia’s interpretation of Jim Crow was stifling to black aspirations but nonetheless distinct from the racial code that governed life in the Deep South. The Old Dominion, after all, had been the aristocratic capital of the Old South. White elites wholeheartedly supported segregation and disfranchisement but shunned vigilante violence as a threat to social stability.”
So white leaders asserted their power through “official” channels. The school board fired Moton’s principal and a teacher who was aunt to a student and whose husband was an NAACP member. They also fired Moton teacher Vera Allen, whose daughter Edwilda was involved in the strike. Eventually, the county abolished John Lancaster’s job as Negro county farm agent, ostensibly because of his support of the strike and his efforts as the Moton PTA president to build a new school.
Farmville business owners also began to retaliate against Griffin. His credit was cut off at department and grocery stores, and his debts suddenly were due immediately. Other black families began to have problems with their credit too. The town was tense. “We had a feeling that things were different,” says Joan Johns Cobb, Barbara’s younger sister.
A few acts of intimidation went beyond the “civilized” code. On Sunday, May 6, someone burned a cross in the Moton schoolyard. The Ku Klux Klan was not active in the area, however, and most people—black and white—agreed it was the action of a few. Griffin received death threats, and a crude homemade bomb fizzled on the steps of his house. The Johns family began to fear for Barbara’s safety after receiving several threats against her. They sent her to live with her uncle Vernon in Montgomery, Alabama, and finish high school there.
Meanwhile, the school board denied the NAACP petition to desegregate schools and suddenly found the money to build a new Moton High School.
On May 23, 1951, the NAACP attorneys filed Dorothy E. Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in federal district court. A three-judge panel heard the case in February 1952 and ruled in favor of the county, writing, “Separation of white and colored ‘children’ in the public schools of Virginia has for generations been a part of the mores of her people.” The NAACP expected this ruling and continued preparation for an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The organization was litigating similar cases in South Carolina, Kansas, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., and, in 1952, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the five school desegregation cases rolled into one: Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka et al. Of the 167 student plaintiffs named in Brown, 117 were Prince Edward students.
Prince Edward leaders, meanwhile, were working to show how effective the separate-but-equal system was. In 1953, the new, modern Moton High School opened with an auditorium, gymnasium, and cafeteria. However, supplies such as books and science equipment were still scarce.
Some white residents believed the new school proved their good intentions to take care of and educate Prince Edward’s black residents. Didn’t it solve the problem? “Given what they believed to be a show of largesse on their part, many were genuinely puzzled when blacks refused to demonstrate proper gratitude by dropping the lawsuit,” Titus writes. Even today, Ward says he hears people in Farmville say, “They gave them what they wanted, so why didn’t the [court] case go away?”
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on Brown and overturned its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that mandated “separate but equal” facilities. Attorneys for Virginia asked for a delay of implementation, citing, among other reasons, that black standards of health and morality were lower than that of whites. More than a year later, in a decision known as Brown II, the court instructed federal district courts act “with all deliberate speed” to order school integration in places specific to the suits, but it gave no deadlines.
Virginia’s leaders initially accepted the court’s decision, albeit grudgingly. Governor Thomas Stanley called for calmness as the state figured out how to implement the new law. But U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd warned that the court decision “is the most serious blow that has yet been struck against the rights of the states in a matter vitally affecting their authority and welfare. . . . In Virginia now we are facing a crisis of the first magnitude.”
In Prince Edward, white leaders bristled at the idea of the federal government telling them how to run their public schools. Wall wrote in a Herald editorial, “We therefore conclude that public education as it is presently constituted has been undermined and toppled to fragments by the general decision of the Supreme Court. We submit that Virginia has not abandoned public education; the Supreme Court has abolished it.”
While segregationist groups such as the White Citizens Councils emphasized racial differences, Virginia’s leaders decided to focus on the legal argument—states’ rights, which they framed as a national conservative issue. The Richmond News Leader’s James Kilpatrick trumpeted the concept of “interposition,” in which the state shields residents from federal mandates, or “interposes” itself. This became the language of Virginia’s resistance.
Prince Edward leaders, including the Farmville mayor, a County Board of Supervisors member, and Wall, organized a group called the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberty. The Defenders believed violence would only hurt their cause. Their leader, Robert Crawford, quoted in the New Republic, said, “If this community should suffer just one incident of Klanism, our white case is lost. No matter who starts it, the whites will be blamed. We must not have it.”
After Brown II was handed down, the Defenders organized a meeting at Longwood College that drew more than 1,300 people. At the meeting, the Defenders presented their plan to close the public schools should they be ordered to desegregate. Those who questioned the plan were accused of being against the community. Through a conspicuous stand-up vote, the Defenders won approval to create what would become the private Prince Edward School Foundation.
Byrd called for “Massive Resistance” to the desegregation law and banded together with other southern congressmen in Washington to sign the “Southern Manifesto,” which stated: “This unwarranted exercise of power by the Court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the States principally affected. It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through ninety years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.” It continued, “We commend the motives of those States which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means.”
Back in Virginia, the General Assembly passed a new set of laws in 1956 known as the Stanley Plan, which gave the governor the power to close any school that integrated and stipulated that school districts that integrated would lose state funding. In September 1958, when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County had to desegregate immediately, the governor closed those schools.
Prince Edward was also under court order to integrate, but the school board won a stay and appealed to the Supreme Court. The court turned down the appeal and returned the case to District Court Judge Sterling Hutcheson, who ruled in August of 1958 that Prince Edward had until 1965 to integrate.
However, in January 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court struck down the school closing provision of Virginia’s massive resistance legislation. The schools that had closed started integrating. And, in May, the Fourth Circuit overturned the district judge’s ruling and ordered Prince Edward to integrate its schools by that fall.
It appeared that massive resistance was reaching its end, but in Prince Edward it was just beginning.
Five years without public school
In June 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voted not to fund the public schools, and the Prince Edward School Foundation leaders launched a statewide fund-raising campaign. As schools began integrating in other counties, segregationists in Prince Edward saw themselves as Davids to the Goliath NAACP and the federal government. “In many ways, Prince Edward County was the last stand of Massive Resistance in the state of Virginia,” says Larissa Smith Fergeson, associate professor of history at Longwood University and historian for the museum’s new permanent exhibit.
Still, many county residents didn’t think the schools would actually close. “The truth was that the Negroes by and large could not bring themselves to believe that the whites would go this far or that the courts would permit them to go this far,” Bob Smith wrote in 1965. “The Negro plaintiffs had, after all, won the case.”
But September came and went, and the public schools never opened. Some 1,700 students were shut out. Meanwhile, the private Prince Edward Academy opened with nearly 1,450 students from kindergarten to high school.
The school closings didn’t just affect children’s education—they changed families. Parents had to decide whether to send their children away so they could continue school. The black community’s Prince Edward County Christian Association helped more than fifty students attend Kittrell College, an African Methodist Episcopal junior college in North Carolina that offered space in its high school department. The Virginia Teachers Association placed Prince Edward students in other Virginia schools, and hundreds of children left the county to live with relatives elsewhere.
Nearly seventy black children left home as part of the Quaker American Friends Service Committee’s placement program. The AFSC placed students with white and black foster families in other parts of the country. Depending on state laws, Fergeson says, parents often had to sign their children over to the social welfare system.
Several Prince Edward black women, including former public school teachers, began grassroots schools in their homes and churches in the fall of 1959. Building on that effort, PECCA, with help from the AFSC, created “training centers” for students that focused on study but also citizenship, black history, arts, current events, and recreation. They were not full-fledged schools, because the black community did not want to get into the private school business or jeopardize the NAACP suit. For two years, they served between 600 and 650 children. The Virginia Teachers Association also sponsored educational programs, and volunteers from as far away as New England came to tutor and work with the students.
Some parents found ways to get their children schooling in neighboring counties. Dorothy Holcomb’s father rented a dilapidated house in neighboring Appomattox County in order to establish residency. Every morning he drove his children to the empty house so they could get on the school bus that would take them to public school. Other relatives joined them. At some point, Holcomb remembered, twenty-one kids were getting on the bus at that house.
But many rural families didn’t have the resources to transport their children long distances and others couldn’t leave their farms. Alejia “Mickie” Carrington, whose family lived in the country about twenty miles outside Farmville, was nine and ready for fifth grade when her local two-room school closed. Her father worked at a nearby sawmill and she had six siblings, so moving wasn’t an option. “In my area, most of the kids stayed home or they moved away with relatives,” she says. “I just remember we played a lot, we read a lot of magazines, the Sears Catalog. We didn’t have schoolbooks to read. My mother was not very educated but she was very intelligent. She taught us the best she could.”
For white students at Prince Edward Academy, life and school did not change as much. “To me it was just like Farmville High School—same people, same yearbook,” says Scott Harwood, who was a junior when the academy opened. “Going to school in church basements wasn’t fun,” he adds. The academy could not match the resources white students had enjoyed at public school. Classroom supplies were meager, there was no school lunch program, students drove the buses, and extracurricular activities were minimal.
Until the new campus opened in 1961, academy students attended classes in fifteen buildings, including churches. Smith remembers that “all over the county, churches blossomed out with fire escapes whose purpose was to satisfy fire laws pertaining to schools.”
Influential white citizens throughout the South championed the academy. Other southern communities looked to Prince Edward for solutions to avoid integration, and leaders came to tour the academy. At first, the school ran on tuition grants the state and county provided to students. The General Assembly also passed a bill that allowed county residents to deduct up to 25 percent of their property taxes if they contributed to a private school. A 1960 Washington Post article noted, “The county tax office is making it easy to figure the maximum which can be contributed. Bills to white taxpayers carry a penciled notation of the amount in the corner.”
But, in August 1961, a federal court in Richmond ruled that Prince Edward could not use public money to fund private education as long as the public schools were closed. This meant some white families would no longer be able to afford the academy. Parents drained their savings and took on extra work, but some had to make other plans.
Eunice Carwile’s family had ten kids, five of whom were in school. They attended the academy at first, but when they were told there would be a $250 tuition and bus fee for each student, there was no way her parents could afford it. Her mother tried to get her kids into the neighboring Charlotte County public schools, to no avail. Her father, a foreman for a Farmville construction company, had been doing part-time work for a doctor in nearby Burkeville, and the family decided to move there. Moving from the country, where they were free to be “wild children,” to the small, insular town was culture shock, Carwile says. In Burkeville, there were the “been heres” and the “come heres.”
Some families in Prince Edward went into major debt trying to pay for the academy, she says, and some children never finished school. “We all suffered,” says Carwile. “Black people suffered much more, and because they were lower on the economic scale, they didn’t have the ability that we did to recover from that. And that still shows in this community.”
Not all of the county’s white residents wanted to close the public schools, although that didn’t necessarily mean they were pro-integration. A group of moderates that the Foundation mockingly called the “Bush Leaguers” met once to strategize about reopening the public schools, but Foundation supporters showed up to intimidate them. The next day, a list of meeting attendees began circulating around town. The “Bush Leaguers” were socially ostracized and their jobs were threatened. However, some challenges to the segregationists’ status quo were successful. When the Foundation tried to buy the empty public school buildings for the private school, all but one of the school board members resigned and released a statement in favor of public education.
Throughout the school closings, the black and white communities of Prince Edward remained largely divided. AFSC worker Helen Baker wrote in 1961 that there was little communication across the color line: “We laugh in passing about the weather as if we are each unaware of the loads on our hearts because of the children’s absences. We buy and sell and bargain together forever pushing back the truth.”
Reopening and after
In the summer of 1963, as the civil rights movement heated up across the country, picketers filled Farmville’s sidewalks, demanding equal treatment at local businesses and equal job opportunities. Some were arrested for demonstrating without a permit, some for singing on the steps of the white Farmville Baptist Church. But several businesses began hiring black workers.
The Justice Department had previously tried to intervene in the school closings by filing a motion in federal district court, and in 1963—after lobbying from AFSC, PECCA, NAACP, and other groups—Robert Kennedy spearheaded a “Free Schools” program for Prince Edward kids. Funded by major foundations, the National Education Association, and private donors, the schools opened in the fall of 1963 in leased public school buildings, with abundant supplies and teachers from across the country.
By March 1964, Griffin v. County Board of Prince Edward County had made it to the Supreme Court, and, in May, the court ordered the schools to reopen. In September, after a five-year hiatus, Prince Edward students returned to public schools that were intentionally underfunded. Nearly all the students were black, and the private academy continued to operate.
Reentry was difficult for many children, and the schools were disorganized. Some students were reading far below grade level. Carrington, who was thirteen, remembers what it was like to return to school. “When the schools reopened, I’d never rode a school bus, I’d never been out of my little small town,” she says. “They bus us to the elementary school in downtown Farmville. I got off the bus and someone came out and said, if you’re thirteen or older, get back on the bus, you’re going to the high school. I was so frightened I didn’t know what to do.”
Carrington had no trouble with the school work itself. She reentered in seventh grade and the next year was placed in ninth grade. But she found herself hating school, she says, probably because she was out of practice being a student.
It would be decades before the Prince Edward County public schools were truly integrated. In 1969, students would strike again for better resources and black representation on the school board. A few months after the 1969 strike, the Washington Post reported on the progress in Farmville: “In addition to one town policeman, the six deputy sheriffs and some rescue squad members, there are now two Negro justices of the peace, a black on the three-member draft board, a Negro Democratic committeeman, and perhaps most significant of all, two Negroes on the six-member school board.”
The same story noted, “Editor and publisher J. Barrye Wall insists everything is fine and says there never was any trouble in Prince Edward County except what outside newspapers stirred up.”
And the common attitude was “never talk about it again,” Ward says. Many who were involved in the strike and subsequent activism never told their children about it. For years, there was a pervasive lack of trust between black and white residents, as well as tension between white families who sent their children to the academy and those who sent their kids to public schools.
Farmville High School never reopened and was torn down, and some people thought the old Moton High School should be, too. In the mid 1990s, the County Board of Supervisors finally agreed to sell it to the Martha E. Forrester Council of Women, a group that included former Moton teachers and students.
Fergeson hopes the new permanent exhibit, “The Moton School Story: Children of Courage,” can help provide closure and understanding for the students who lived through the school closings. “They are carrying around an emotional burden that they’ve been carrying for fifty years,” she says.
“That museum has been the healing ground for me,” Carrington says. She’s learned for the first time how white families were impacted, befriended a former academy teacher, and done a lot of praying to help get over her anxieties and anger. “I have come so far,” she says. “I’ve surprised myself.”