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“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
Sitting in the two-story brick church his father had pastured before him—a structure that had served as a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War and as the sanctuary of a white congregation before that—Griffin reflected on the Prince Edward County school crisis and its consequences. He spoke of “the high moral level” of the struggle: “I could respect the local whites for the honesty of their position. Their feelings were firm, and out in the open. They were not deceitful. I think it’s fair to say they respected me, too. I was frank —I would tell them what I was going to do, and I’d do it. It was sort of a gentlemen’s fight. There was no overt violence, such as was common in Mississippi and elsewhere. What little violence there was, was isolated and unorganized. There were reprisals, yes, but they were more tactful and sophisticated.”
The youngest of the Griffin children is a student at Prince Edward County High School now, where Mrs. Griffin teaches. The older children are all grown and gone; one of them graduated from Harvard and presently is pursuing doctoral study there. “They missed four years of school, the same as most of the others,” Griffin said. “As long as any black child was without education, I couldn’t in good conscience let mine go off to school somewhere else. After the schools reopened, we did send two of them away. It’s hard to say how much damage was done to children here by the closing of the schools, but many had tremendous gaps in their learning after they returned, and many others never continued school at all.”
The quality of the public schools now, in Griffin’s opinion, “is comparable with that of schools elsewhere in Southside Virginia—and I don’t know if that’s saying a lot. I think they’re working up to standard, and I hope they’ll continue to improve. But it’s still a question of money and politics. All American schools seem to be in trouble—and these are no different.” The Prince Edward Academy, he added, “is pretty much like it has always been, and I don’t see anything other than economic factors changing that.”
The changes he has seen in Prince Edward County since he returned there to live almost thirty years ago have left Francis Griffin with mixed emotions. He has seen black land ownership decline sharply as small-acreage family farming has become virtually impossible to make profitable; at the same time, he has seen some industry come into the community, with the result that many blacks (and whites) have steadier employment and higher incomes than they have ever had before. Some blacks now serve on the county board of supervisors, on the school board, in other offices of government, and in law enforcement—but there are fewer black craftsmen and small-business owners than in previous years.
Race relations, too, are both better and the same, he says: “Among young adults, I think things are better—there’s more contact, more pragmatic cooperation. My hope is with those young adults—and of course, there’s always hope for the little ones, even though the continuation of segregated education establishes attitudes that are difficult to overcome. With the older generation, things are the same as always—they haven’t been affected by any of this, not really, and since that’s where the power still is, it’s hard to see much real improvement in race relations. We’re marking time and resting on our laurels, white and black.”
Of the country’s white men of power, Griffin said: “I see some of them now and then. Some of them have told me they feel what happened was for the best. They may not tell you that, but they’ve told me. A few of them have told me they now see and appreciate what I was trying to do—but I doubt if you could find any who would say, even in private, that they think integration is right. Even now, they would be afraid to be identified with that position.”
And what of the future? “Unless something drastic, such as an economic crisis, forces further change,” he said, “I don’t see things being much different in another twenty or twentyfive years than they are now. In essence, there’s a new status quo here. There is no voluntary movement toward greater equality. That’s unfortunate, but it’s true. This is still a battleground, the lines of separation still exist—but the pressures are not such that there will be skirmishes, or all-out fighting. It’s a cold war now, and I look for it to go on.”
What of the “young adults” on whom Francis Griffin pins his hopes? Most members of the Moton High School “strike class” of 1951, including Barbara Johns, left the community. One of them, James Samuel Williams, returned to Farmville in 1977 from Buffalo, where as a Baptist minister he directed a ghetto social-action program for nine years.