“A Gentlemen’s Fight”

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In 1951, almost a decade before organized student protests became a weapon in the civil rights movement, a group of juniors and seniors in the county’s black high school in Farmville led a strike in protest against educational inequities. Virtually the entire student body joined in the walkout, keeping the school closed for two weeks.

Shortly thereafter, black students and adults in the county accepted the aid of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in a lawsuit challenging segregation in the public schools. Three years later, when the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, it was incorporated with similar ones from Kansas and elsewhere and made the basis for the court’s famous Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring school-segregation laws unconstitutional.

In 1959, after the state of Virginia had tried and failed to meet the Supreme Court ruling with “massive resistance” —a strategy bordering on open defiance of the federal government—the white elected officials of Prince Edward County shut down their public schools and kept them closed for five years rather than permit white and black children to attend class together. A makeshift private school network was set up to accommodate white students and teachers; all blacks were locked out.

Now, twenty years after it closed its schools and fifteen years after it was compelled by the Supreme Court order to reopen them, Prince Edward County clings stubbornly to school segregation. Most of its white pupils attend the all-white private academy, which has become a permanent fixture in the community, and all of its black students are in the public schools with a minority (25 per cent) of whites. Thus, even as desegregation has become more the rule than the exception in the schools of the South—and more widely established there than in the rest of the country—most Prince Edward whites have continued on their charted course of racial separation. Only in that—and in a general avoidance of violence—has the county behaved consistently with its past.

By the time it was chartered in 1754 and named for the grandson of the reigning king of England, Prince Edward County already had formed the basic patterns of a way of life that would continue in recognizable form through nationhood, civil war, reconstruction, and twentieth-century modernism. It had a tobacco-based agricultural economy, sharp social-class divisions among whites, black subservience, and a general lack of enthusiasm for the notion of education for the masses. Before and after the Civil War, it gave its upper-class whites classical education in home-based private schools, and provided little else for white children of lesser means and nothing at all for blacks until 1870, when some segregated primary schools were opened for both races. The first public high school for whites wasn’t built until the turn of the century, and it was nearly forty years after that before black students could complete twelve years of schooling.

The Robert R. Moton High School, named for a Prince Edward County native who had succeeded Booker T. Washington as president of Tuskegee Institute, was opened to 167 black students in 1939. Built with $40,000 in state and federal funds, the Farmville school was intended to accommodate 180 pupils, but within eight years it enrolled nearly 400, and three frame-and-tar-paper outbuildings heated by wood stoves were added to handle the overflow.

The principle of “separate but equal” facilities and opportunities for whites and blacks had been set down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, but in the states of the South equality never really had been considered, much less achieved, and Prince Edward County was no exception. Moton High School was in no way equal to the high school facilities provided for white students, and the tar-paper outbuildings only served to accentuate the inequality. From time to time there was talk of a new high school for blacks, and the Moton Parent-Teacher Association regularly petitioned the county school board for improvements. But by the beginning of 1951, the board had taken no action on the matter.

That’s when a sixteen-year-old member of the Moton junior class, Barbara Rose Johns, brought together a small group of her classmates and planned the strike that set in motion thirteen years of conflict, and changed the pattern of white-black relations in Prince Edward County.

On the morning of April 23,1951, the 450 students of Moton High were called to the auditorium, there to be met by Barbara Johns and her companions. The two dozen members of the faculty were asked to return to their classrooms, and reluctantly did so; the school principal was away from the building, responding to an anonymous phone message that two of his students were in trouble at the Farmville bus station.

Quickly, the case for a protest strike was put before the student body: their school was grossly inadequate and unequal, their education was being severely shortchanged as a result, and they should walk out together and stay out until county officials promised them a new school. Protest signs were stored and waiting (“We want a new school or none at all” and “Down with the tar-paper shacks”), and the mass of students rose cheering, took up the signs, and marched out. The strike was on.