- 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
The headmaster at Prince Edward Academy is Robert T. Redd. He has been an administrator and teacher at the school for all of its twenty years. His office is in a building adjoining the academy’s sixty-classroom facility, built in 1961.
“The papers tried to crucify us,” he said. “They called us a fly-by-night operation, said we wouldn’t last a year. But we’ve proved them wrong. We’ve shown that we can deliver excellence in education under a controlled environment. Eighty per cent of our graduates go on to college or some kind of post—high school education—and they’re going to highquality institutions like the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, and doing well there.”
Admission to the academy is not selective, Redd said, “except that we avoid known discipline problems.” The school has enrolled nonwhite students he added—Koreans, Chinese, American Indians, Spanish—but no blacks: “None have ever applied. We have no written policy on that. If they came, I suppose we would handle them the same as we do all the others.”
According to Redd, Prince Edward Academy’s enrollment was stabilized at about 1,200 for a number of years, before tapering off over the past five years to the present level of about 1,000. Its tuition has increased gradually but steadily, $850 for high school students and $800 for the lower grades. Teacher salaries also have risen, from less than $4,000 a year in the beginning to an average of about $8,000 now.
“Our pay scale isn’t as high as the public schools,” the headmaster said, “but we don’t have any trouble getting teachers. All of our classroom teachers are certified, onethird of them have master’s degrees—and this year, we had about a hundred applications for two vacancies. The best teachers want to come here because we don’t have any discipline problems. We run a tight ship.”
The relationship between Prince Edward Academy and the public schools of Prince Edward County is not unfriendly, both sides agree—not close, but not hostile either—and while it might be stretching a point to say they wish each other well, it is certainly safe to assume that they watch each other closely, and with keen interest.
All the heat of the nineteen fifties and early sixties in Prince Edward County has long since burned out. The people have adjusted, adapted—some with relief, others with resignation—to the new arrangement. Some are pleased with the outcome, satisfied that no great harm has been done and no cataclysmic changes have resulted from a little desegregation. Some are saddened, convinced that no fundamental adjustments have been made, no lessons learned.
Lester E. Andrews, Sr., a one-time chairman of the county school board, now serves on an electoral commission that appoints new members to the board; he also serves as a member of Prince Edward Academy’s governing body. When he resigned the school board chairmanship in 1960 rather than vote to sell school property, Andrews lost some friends. Recalling that, he said: “People didn’t understand what we were trying to do. We were trying to keep the black schools open. I have no regrets about my role in it—or about the outcome. The blacks lost five years of school, and they were hurt immensely by that—but now, they’re probably getting a better education. The academy was hard pressed to begin with, but whites have also ended up getting a better education than before. In a way, you could say we’ve got pretty much what we had before, only better.”
Gordon Moss, the history professor at Longwood College who almost alone among Farmville whites opposed not only the closing of the schools but also segregation itself, is less sanguine today. In 1968 he retired from teaching but stayed in Farmville; he lives there still, a seventy-eight-year-old former scholar with a still-active mind and a Sandburgian shock of white hair. His assessment of the outcome of the Prince Edward County school closings is quietly, matter-of-factly negative: “Most of the blacks got no education at all, and have grown up uneducated. Some went away to school, and profited greatly from the experience, but the vast majority were simply lost. I’d say the white segregationists won. They have to obey the letter of the law now, but not the spirit—and they don’t. There is no longer total segregation, but the whites still get what they want. As long as they can raise enough money to keep their academy going strong, they’ve won. Not many lessons have been learned. I’m afraid we accomplished very little.”
But of all the people who figured prominently in the Prince Edward County conflict, Leslie Francis Griffin could be said to have been the central character. Many whites—and not a few blacks—saw him as a radical disrupter of the peace and perhaps the instigator of the student strike and the NAACP lawsuit. The NAACP lawyers and all those who tried in one way or another to bring pressure to bear from outside the community found it necessary to reckon with him.