June is graduation month across the United States, a time for valedictory speeches, caps and gowns, diplomas, a proud moment for the graduates and their families. But for the graduates being recognized at Sunday's ceremony in Prince Edward County, Virginia, it was a bittersweet moment, coming as it did 40 years late.
Until this week, the rural community of Prince Edward County had never officially recognized the 500 or so blacks and poor whites who were denied an education from 1959 through 1964. They are known as the Lost Generation.
"Will the first row of graduates please rise?"
When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark school desegregation ruling in 1954, many communities in the Southern states resisted integration. To avoid having blacks and whites learn together in the same classrooms, Prince Edward County shut down its school system completely for five years. Dorothy Green, who traveled here from Connecticut with her grandson to receive an honorary diploma, had to move 160 kilometers away in order to keep up with her education. "It was terrible. I hated every moment, every year of it. I'm still mad about it, you know? If you could only hear some of the stories, how the families suffered," she said.
Yvonne Evans was 12 when schools closed. "My mom took us to New Jersey, and I was like 16 years old in the fifth grade, 'cause I wanted to catch up on what I had lost," she says.
Others never went back to catch up. When the Prince Edward schools shut their doors in 1959, 12-year old George Holman was a straight A student. "And I really wanted to be a lawyer, but I wound up being a laborer, so I'm pretty sure I've made about one hundredth of the money I could have earned if I had the opportunity to further my education," he says.
While Mr. Holman is grateful that past wrongs have been recognized, he says it's come too late for many of his fellow former students. "Most of them have one foot in the grave and one out. Matter of fact, a friend of mine that's waiting for a diploma last week died. So, I'm saying, this piece of paper really, the best thing I can do with it is to hang it on the wall and look at it, but I appreciate it anyway," he says.
Mr. Holman and his fellow graduates were honored in advance of next year's fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown versus Board of Education decision, which mandated desegregation in the nation's public schools. The Prince Edward County School Board was a defendant in another case that was heard along with Brown. Students at the RR Moton High School had sued over what they claimed were inferior conditions in the black schools.
Bobby Scott, Virginia's only African-American member of the U.S. Congress, says the struggle of this so-called lost generation of students paved the way for a more equal Virginia. "Because the students here sacrificed, a lot of things changed in Virginia. The schools began to be integrated, and it would not have taken place if hadn't been for the Davis vs. Prince Edward County Virginia which was part of the Brown Case," he says.
A 1964 Supreme Court decision ordered the county to reopen the schools, to whites and blacks, but the five-year long closure had deepened the racial gap and left a painful legacy. Many local white children were able to attend a private academy that was illegally funded with tax dollars. Black students and poor whites had to move, study on their own, or stop their education.
In 1972, Jim Anderson became Superintendent of the county schools and was charged with repairing the rift. "When I became superintendent it was five percent white, 95 percent black. Our absolute funding was at minimum, so it was rough going, but the one thing they told me was don't ever let that happen again, for the schools to close again," he says.
Under Mr. Anderson's tenure, education funding increased, classrooms were modernized, and white students began returning to the public schools. Today, the county school population is fully integrated, and Congressman Bobby Scott says Prince Edward's story could serve as a model for the rest of the nation. "Forty percent of African American students in the country attend schools that are ninety percent black or more. That's not going in the right direction," he says.
This week's ceremony has brought a sad chapter in America's civil rights movement to a close, according to Zaheera Zarif, a county resident who helped organize the event. "When they closed the school system, it was almost like the last stroke of tearing families apart. The pain that rippled through these young people, and they were just striving to get an education, just trying to learn how to read and write. And for a county, for a state, to allow such an atrocity! It was horrible," he says.
The Virginia General Assembly agreed with Ms. Zarif earlier this year when it approved a resolution expressing the state's profound regret over the closing of Prince Edward County schools, paving the way for Sunday's belated graduation ceremony.