- 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
Over the years, a number of national groups and organizations tried with varying degrees of success to assist the black children who were locked out of the Prince Edward County schools. The NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, the American Friends Service Committee, Kittrell College in North Carolina, and numerous others offered assistance. Some students were sent away to schools in other communities and states; some got a little help in makeshift centers set up to operate part-time in the county; some were aided by summer-school programs organized by groups of teachers and others from outside the community.
But most of the children—by one estimate, at least 1,100—received virtually no schooling during most of the five-year shutdown. Carlton Terry, one of the fortunate few to be educated elsewhere under the sponsorship of the American Friends Service Committee, called the Prince Edward black adolescents of the 1959—64 period “the crippled generation… [a] generation left lame.”
With assistance from officials in the Kennedy administration, private funds were raised to set up a “free school” for black students in the county in 1963. Colgate W. Darden, Jr., a former governor of Virginia and former president of the University of Virginia, was named chairman of the private body’s board of trustees, and Neil V. Sullivan, a well-known public school educator, was brought in as director. Prior to the opening of the free school program in four old “black” public school buildings, a hot summer of demonstrations and discord in Farmville had raised for the first time the threat of widespread violence in the county. Prince Edward was by then a beleaguered community, and a wounded one; its troubles had been told to the nation by television and the press, and in the growing struggle for civil rights that was quickly enveloping the South, it seemed near to becoming a battleground of major importance. One way or another, the stalemate there appeared certain to be broken.
During 1963—64, a few fragile seeds of hope took root in the county. The summer demonstrations had ended without disastrous results, the protesters who had come in from other places departed, and a measure of calm returned. The free school program received some cooperation from state and local officials, and yielded positive results. Prince Edward Academy seemed firmly entrenched in a new school plant it had built, but its enrollment had slipped to about 1,200 and some people seemed to think that reopening the public schools would result in gradual desegregation and a further decline in the academy’s enrollment. At the very least, therefore, the prospect of some interracial contact in education no longer seemed unthinkable to all whites.
And at long last, in the summer of 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded once and for all that, in the interest of equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Constitution, Prince Edward County had to maintain a public school system, and that the county’s public officials could be forced, if necessary, to appropriate funds to that end. At a cost beyond measure, the county and the state of Virginia had fought in the courts to prevent that conclusion for thirteen years; in the end, they submitted quietly, and the public schools were reopened in September.
The free schools that had operated for one year went out of business. Fewer than a dozen white students and approximately 1,700 blacks enrolled in the “new” Prince Edward County public schools. The number of blacks in school was about the same as in 1959, before the schools were closed—but they were not, of course, all the same children, and it would prove virtually impossible to determine exactly how many had had their education terminated permanently (the total almost certainly ran into the hundreds). As for white children, the commonly expressed belief that they had not been affected adversely by the school closings appeared not to be borne out by the facts: in the eight years prior to 1959, white enrollment in the county grew by 18 per cent; by 1964, the total (i.e., the enrollment at Prince Edward Academy) had fallen by about 20 per cent, and no clear accounting for the loss has ever been made.
“People feared the worst,” said James M. Anderson, Jr., the Prince Edward County superintendent of schools, I “but things were never as bad as they were thought to be. There’s great potential here, and we’re making real progress.”
In 1979, fifteen years after the schools were reopened, Anderson counted nearly 600 whites and a stable total of 1,700 blacks in the public school enrollment. “When I came here in 1972,” he said, “I was told we would never reach 20 per cent white. We’re at about 25 per cent now.”
The “new” Moton High School, erected after the strike in the early 1950’s now is called Prince Edward County High School. A modern vocational-technical school has been opened across the road from it. Slightly more than half of the school system’s 125 faculty members and two of the eight school-board members are black. Consolidation has reduced the number of school buildings in use in the county to five. Teacher salaries average about $10,000. Half of the 120 or so annual high school graduates regularly go on to some type of post-secondary education. There has been growth, change, improvement; public schools are back to stay, and the future, in Anderson’s view, is full of promise.