Excerpt: Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia
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Prince Edward County, Virginia, is the neglected chapter in American civil rights history. In 1951, black high school students in this rural county of 14,000 went on strike to protest unequal school facilities, several years before civil rights activities elsewhere in the South began to penetrate public consciousness. The strike led to an NAACP lawsuit that became one of five cases decided by the Supreme Court in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education , which outlawed official segregation in public schools.
Faced with a federal court order to desegregate its schools in fall 1959, the county withdrew from the public school business for five years, reopening schools in 1964 under orders from the Supreme Court. Nearly 2,700 black students were locked out of public schools; fewer than 500 received some formal education outside the county. During the closing years, most white students enrolled in the segregated Prince Edward Academy. White county leaders believed that they were creating a blueprint for defying desegregation mandates in the rural South and, they hoped, throughout much of the United States. Had the Supreme Court decided not to strike down the school-closing strategy—13 years after the school strike, a decade after Brownand five years after schools had closed—these Virginia segregationists may have been proven correct.
Educational Options for Blacks
Prince Edward blacks lacked the financial reserves and influence with county decision-makers that whites could bring to bear on the school issue. Although whites had been warning for five years that they were perfectly willing to close county schools, many Prince Edward blacks could not fathom that the county would resort to such extremes. Calvin Nunnally was 10 years old in 1959. In his recollection, “it became clear the first few weeks in August the schools were not going to reopen, and all the summer there was always talk. The schools would open…something would come up maybe in City Council meetings, or Board of Supervisors meetings that would give a ray of hope, but it would fizzle out and now we’re into September and the schools weren’t open.” Rita Moseley, 12 years old when schools closed, described her surprise at the closings:
The first I heard [about the closings] was from [my classmates]. Some of the other kids were saying that schools were going to be closed and, of course, I didn’t believe it and a lot of us didn’t believe it, until it actually was.…But I lived right behind one of the schools that I went to, the elementary school, and that school was chained, the doors was chained, so I knew then (laughs)—that was a wide awakening right there.
Adults, too, were caught off-guard by the closings. Vanessa Venable, who was teaching in PEC’s black schools in 1959, described Farmville in the 1950s as “a very pleasant place, a very congenial place with apparently no discord anywhere. Everything was moving very smoothly.” The school closings tore away those assumptions: “We were all very, very upset. We didn’t think that we were living among people who would be that mean. We expected something but not that drastic a move. We thought that the white people in Farmville were all friendly neighbors. But when this happened we began to wonder whether we were living among neighbors or whether we were living among enemies.”
Even before the schools closed, Negro children found themselves in an isolated, rural locale that offered them no “access to a movie [except in the balcony] or a gymnasium or a bowling alley or a pool or a skating rink or YWCA or a civil service job or any clerical job.” But the school closings were an unspeakable affront to any notion of mutual concern and respect. In spring 1962, AFSC’s Harry Boyte observed: