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Interrupted Educations to be Made Whole After 50 Years

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that blacks had a constitutional right to attend school with whites, several Virginia counties shut their schools down, rather than de-segregate. For ten years, youngsters there -- black and white -- had to go elsewhere to get an education. If they had no place to go, as was the case with most black students, they were left to wallow in ignorance.

Now, those students are eligible for state-sponsored college scholarships, and many are going back to school at a time when most people their age are looking forward to retirement.

The story began half a century ago in Farmville, Virginia -- a sleepy little town in the heart of the state's rural piedmont region. About 7,000 people live here today. 70% are white, and 25% of the population is black.

On this particular Friday afternoon at Prince Edward County High School, the hallways perfectly reflect the racial make-up of the town. White and black students mingle freely with one another as they get ready for the weekend, but school secretary Rita Mosley says many of them do not fully understand just how significant a scene like this is.

"When we had the Brown vs. Board of Education celebration (to mark the) 50th anniversary (of the Supreme Court decision)," she says, "I think that's when the kids really began to realize what happened, and the history of it. So I think more of them know now than they ever did, but I think the majority of them may not."

Prince Edward County was the first of several Virginia counties to close its public schools following the Supreme Court's historic Brown decision. Rita Mosley is one of hundreds of people -- most of them, like herself, black -- whose educations were interrupted by the county's action.

From 1954 until 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all students had a constitutional right to a public education, no one in Prince Edward County attended formal classes. Ms. Mosley's parents sent her to live in a county more than 100 kilometers away so that she could still attend school. She says she was miserable, but considers herself luckier than most, because at least she got two years' worth of a formal education during that ten year period.

Alda Boothe, 56, was not so lucky. "I was hurt. Very hurt," she says. "I really did like school, going into the fourth grade, I was just beginning to learn."

Ms. Boothe's family was too poor to send her away, and they did not know anyone she could stay with in a nearby county. So instead of going to school, Alda Boothe worked in Virginia's tobacco fields for $7 a day. "During the summers," she recalls, "a bunch of nice white people from (the northern states of) Connecticut and Ohio came down and taught us at these little centers we had, how to read, write, and (do) arithmetic."

Thanks to that tutoring, Alda Boothe was able to keep up with her studies to some degree. When the schools finally re-opened, she tested just two years behind where she should have been at that point in her life. Ms. Boothe eventually graduated from high school when she was in her early 20s, but college was out of the question until now.

This September, Alda Boothe and Rita Mosley started business classes at nearby St. Paul's College.

"It will take me four years to get my degree," Alda Boothe says. "At 56, I still think there's a chance I can better myself. When I was younger, I couldn't afford to go, and I didn't have the opportunity like I have today."

Ms. Boothe has the opportunity, because the state of Virginia is paying for her education. It is part of a formal apology the state has made to all students who were adversely affected by the school closures.

At first, the apology was meant to be simply ceremonial. State lawmakers expressed their profound regret that nothing had been done to keep the schools open, and the Prince Edward County school board offered honorary diplomas to anyone who had not been able to graduate because of the closures.

But then Ken Woodley, who edits the local newspaper, the Farmville Herald, challenged officials to give their apology some substance. "If you're going to say 'I'm sorry,' it's so much better to say 'I'm sorry, and this is what I'm going to do about it,'" Mr. Woodley says. "If an honorary diploma's a good thing, at the end of the day, that's just a piece of paper that hasn't given anybody anything back which was stolen. So it seemed really obvious and clear that the state needed to create a scholarship program for these men and women to give them back what was stolen, and that is educational opportunity."

It may have seemed obvious to Ken Woodley, but it was not so obvious to state lawmakers, many of whom believed no one would want to go back to college this late in life. So Mr. Woodley proved to them that if the scholarships were created, they would be used.

" We had a massive rally on the (state) capitol steps. (There were) five school busses from Prince Edward County filled up with men and women in their 50s and 60s, and 200 of them on the capitol steps," he says. "The governor was there. The legislators had to walk through them, and they knew definitively that there were people there who would use them (i.e. the scholarships)."

This was the first year the scholarships were offered, and so far, 22 of those men and women who rallied in the state capital are enrolled in college. Officials have already started receiving scholarship applications for next year. They expect the second group of scholars to be five times as big as the first.