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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
Williams said the school strike and subsequent developments “didn’t end racism and exploitation in Prince Edward County, but they raised people’s consciousness permanently, raised black expectations, gave blacks a sense of personal worth, and taught them the meaning of justice and equality. Reverend Griffin was responsible for that.” The basic problems of Prince Edward County, he added, are the same as before: “Racism, stratification, and competition are dominant here, as they are everywhere else in the country. But I do see some change for the better since I left. We’ve got a better chance to make it than Buffalo, and I’m glad to be back.”
Other young adults have begun to manifest a more independent and progressive outlook in the county’s businesses and professions, in government, and especially in politics. The Prince Edward County Democratic party organization, long dominated by conservatives, is now in the hands of a committee carefully balanced with whites and blacks, progressives and conservatives, young and old, male and female. (Women, virtually invisible in the upper echelons of any social or political organizations in the past, are finally beginning to be seen and heard in Prince Edward County.)
Donald Stuart, a young English professor at Longwood College and the current chairman of the Democratic party, has made clear his position on race. “The rigid segregationist is a dying breed,” he said. “The world is changing. Younger people are coming into this community who don’t have any hang-ups about race. I wouldn’t call them liberal—they’re just color blind. They want everybody to participate—not necessarily for social reasons, but simply because it’s good for business.”
Marshall Ellett, a thirty-one-year-old attorney and native of Southside Virginia, is another activist in Prince Edward’s political “youth movement.” A self-described “pragmatist,” he helped to fashion the “exotic coalition” that now bids to become the new voice of political power in the county. He acknowledges that racial inequities still exist. “We’re still paying for the troubles of the past,” he said. “That’s a cross we bear. But we’re trying to pick up the pieces, and though it may take fifteen or twenty years, I think we can solve our racial and economic and educational problems.” Finally, there is James Edward Ghee, Jr. He was born and raised in Prince Edward County. When the schools were closed in 1959, he was about to enter the ninth grade at Moton High School. He was out of school for two years, a member of the “lost generation”—but he was not lost. He was one of sixty-seven children sent to schools in other parts of the country by the American Friends Service Committee. Ghee attended high school for four years in Iowa City, Iowa, and went on to graduate from the University of Iowa in 1969. Returning to his home state, he was admitted to the University of Virginia law school. After earning his degree there and gaining three years of experience elsewhere, he returned to Farmville in 1975. He is the only black attorney in private practice between Lynchburg and Richmond, and the first ever to practice in Prince Edward County.
“I think I always knew I was coming back,” he said. “I knew there was a need—not just for a lawyer, but for someone who could help as I had been helped. The best way to make a difference with my life, I felt, was to go back home—and it’s a real good feeling to be back.”
James Ghee is a principal figure in the group of young adults seeking to reform the county Democratic party. He has a thriving practice on Farmville’s Main Street, representing white as well as black clients. He is near his parents (his father is a laborer, his mother a maid) and near his friends, old and new.
“I’m really satisfied here,” he said. “There is a sense of accomplishment, a reason to be optimistic. There has been some change—and there’s more coming. The old traditions and customs are falling. Over time, the younger generation will change things here. Yes, it feels really good to be right in the middle of that.”