Plaque commemorating Barbara Johns, the 16-year old girl whose actions sparked the landmark case Davis vs. County School Board of Prince Edward County.
For many Americans, segregation seems like something out of a dusty history book, involving people long ago or places far away. We have all seen the black and white videos on 60 Minutes or other news programs of hoses turned on African-Americans or others protesting de jure inequality in our country (the black and white pictures and video do not help things seem real and recent, do they?). Apartheid in South Africa, a similar historical period, seems like something much more recent and relevant to people today. Yet, the reality is that segregation in the United States was not fully disestablished until fifty years ago, during many of your parents' or your own lifetimes. Many of the Black students who walked out of their segregated schools in protest are still alive today, as are many of the people who fought to keep the system in place. In interesting picture of the realities of segregation can be gleamed from the story of Prince Edward County, a small county in central Virginia, that was a hotbed of resistance to desegregation.
Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841-1898), a county native, born a slave, who became the first Half-Negroe full-term senator of the United States. Shaking my head at the term "Half-Negroe".
Prince Edward County has been for much of its history primarily an agricultural place. It is notable as the county of origin of several Confederate officers, of Blanche Kelso Bruce - the first "Half-Negro" full-term United States Senator (from 1875 - 1881), and as a center of the so-called Massive Resistance Movement in Virginia in the 50s and 60s. The Massive Resistance Movement occurred in response to Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Ed in 1954, which declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional in the United States. In fact, a local case, Davis vs. County School Board of Prince Edward County, was one of several cases incorporated into Brown vs. Board of Ed when the later case was heard by the Supreme Court. In Davis, the state court of Virginia rejected the suit by Black students at a segregated high school, who claimed that high school in Prince Edward County must be integrated in order to create equal conditions. The state court claimed that the state of Virginia was making every attempt to create equal conditions at the Black school. Brown vs. Board of Ed overturned the state court's decision, therefore requiring Virginia to integrated its schools.
Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany, younger brother of George III of Great Britain and the namesake of the county. How appropriate.
Brown vs. Board of Ed was not received sitting down in Virginia (did I butcher that expression???). As a part of the Massive Resistance Movement, the State of Virginia granted tuition grants to white students in Virginia so that they might attend private white academies rather than the soon-to-be integrated schools. Sort of clever, actually, because it meant that the White segregated schools would now only have Black students, essentially reverting to being Black schools only with different names than they had before. The newly-formed White academies were informally known as "segregation academies" since they existed solely for the White students who would no longer be attending public schools. This private education for Whites was actually paid for by the State of Virginia with the tuition grants. Prince Edward County, notably, took this resistance movement one step further in 1959 by refusing to appropriate any funds at all for the public schools, essentially closing down the school district and shuttering all educational opportunities for Black children in the county.
The Prince Edward County School District remained shut down until 1964, for five years, during which time Black students had to travel outside the county to be educated or not be educated at all. The NAACP stepped up by opening a school to educate Black children in 1963. Naturally, however, this issue had to be taken back to the Supreme Court, who decided unanimously in 1964 that the county was thereby ordered to reopen its schools or have its officers face prosecution. Permit me a break from objectivity by saying: Nice job Supreme Court! This ended the Massive Resistance Movement in Virginia. Wow, kind of a fascinating story for a small out of the way county in the Upper South, huh?