- Historic Sites
“A Gentlemen’s Fight”
Nobody was murdered or maimed, but nobody backed down for twenty years in the struggle over school integration in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Who finally won?
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
Meanwhile, Prince Edward County officials, still determined to close their schools rather than desegregate them, continued to wait for the dreaded implementation order they knew was inevitable. Complex legal maneuvers had kept their case tied up in the lower federal courts since the Brown ruling. Finally, in 1959, all appeals on the particulars of implementation were exhausted, and schools were ordered desegregated with the beginning of the fall term. The Prince Edward supervisors, true to their word, promptly cut off all funds to the school system and shut it down. Even as Virginia’s strategy of recalcitrance was being shattered and token desegregation was beginning to take place in a few schools across the state, little Prince Edward County prepared to go its chosen way alone, without regard for the consequences.
When September of 1959 arrived, almost all the 1,500 white pupils in the county were enrolled in Prince Edward Academy, the new entity which was holding classes in sixteen temporary locations. They had the same white teachers and administrators as before, the staff of nearly 70 having moved virtually intact from the public payroll to the private one. For the 1,700 black students and approximately 25 teachers, there were no classes, no jobs, no schools.
For all practical purposes, the Prince Edward County government, Prince Edward Academy, and the local Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties were dominated by the same people. Throughout the more than eight years of turmoil, the whites never broke ranks. Not even moderate expressions of dissent or suggestions of compromise were tolerated. Two who voiced mild objections to the closing of the public schools—a high school principal named James Bash and a Presbyterian minister named James R. Kennedy—were gone from the community within a year. Another, a history professor at Longwood College in Farmville named Gordon Moss, grew increasingly critical of white intransigence as the crisis dragged on, and while he remained in the community, his was an isolated and lonely voice.
Among blacks, public support of desegregation also was muted. Only the Reverend Mr. Griffin, whose livelihood was beyond the reach of the white establishment, was consistently outspoken. The NAACP, of which Griffin was both a local and state leader, continued its efforts in the federal courts to win desegregation and equal educational opportunity for Prince Edward County blacks, but the legal proceedings were agonizingly slow. The beginning of the private school program for whites seemed to suggest to everyone that a long stalemate was at hand, and as that realization sank in, the various parties became, if anything, more determined and uncompromising than ever.
In the fall of 1959 a group of white segregationists offered to set up a private school program for blacks, ostensibly in response to the plight of idle students and teachers. Most blacks were suspicious of the idea, however, seeing it as a cynical ploy to legitimize segregation, and in the end only one application from a black child was received by the sponsors.
Since the state legislators had set up tuition grants for students attending private schools, the Prince Edward segregationists may have wanted a private school for blacks in order to demonstrate that the tuition grants were available to both races and thus nondiscriminatory. Furthermore, the whites badly needed school buildings for their academy, and there was some speculation that if both whites and blacks had private schools, the padlocked facilities of the public system might somehow be reopened to accommodate them. A dispute over that issue in 1960 led to the only serious split between whites in the community during the entire school crisis. In the opinion of Lester E. Andrews, Sr., chairman of the public school board, it was imperative that the public schools be reopened as quickly as possible. Two former chairmen and close friends of Andrews, B. Calvin Bass and Maurice Large, shared that view. But in the leadership of the private academy there appeared to be a consensus that public schools in the county had been abandoned for good. Neither group favored integration, of course—but the Andrews faction believed that it would be economically disastrous for the county to try to function permanently without a public school system, while the academy backers were willing, even eager, to follow that path.
The split between the two groups became deep and serious. Andrews and four others on the six-member school board resigned rather than vote to sell Farm ville High School to the academy. In the summer of 1960, Andrews, Bass, Large, and others held a series of private meetings, some of them with blacks in attendance, to talk about compromise moves that might break the deadlock between whites and blacks and settle the long legal dispute.
But social ostracism and pressure against the compromisers—derisively dubbed the “Bush League”—grew quickly in the white community. In short order, they abandoned their efforts, and the only sign of serious dissent ever to arise in the school crisis faded and died as quickly as it had arisen. Four more years of closed public schools and dreary stalemate lay ahead for Prince Edward County.