May 17 marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision known as Brown versus the Board of Education, a landmark ruling that declared racial segregation in American public schools to be unconstitutional. That decision had an especially profound impact on Prince Edward County in the southern state of Virginia. One of the five cases that led to the Supreme Court decision originated in that county, and local officials shut down the schools for five yearsfrom 1959 to 1964 rather than permit black and white students to attend class together. VOA's Nancy Beardsley has more on what happened in Prince Edward County, and how that history is being remembered this year.
When Theresa Clark got ready to start school in Prince Edward County more than 40 years ago, there was no public school to attend; they'd all been closed. So the young African-American girl spent two years traveling back and forth to an adjoining county.
"Sometimes I rode with a teacher who taught there. I rode with some of my mother's friends. I rode on a sawmill truck with some men to get to the other county line," she explains. Theresa Clark says she could never have imagined back then she'd end up as a professor, coordinating the social work program at Longwood University, in the Prince Edward community of Farmville. She's also co-chairing the school's 50th anniversary commemoration of Brown versus the Board of Education.
"One of the primary goals was to educate the community," she explains. "We have found there were so many people who weren't knowledgeable about Prince Edward's involvement in the Brown versus Board of Education case. We also wanted to commemorate the importance of such a major Supreme Court decision, and how it should be lived out today."
The county's role in that decision dates back to a strike staged by African American students at R.R. Moton High School. The school is now in being converted into a civil rights museum. Longwood literature professor Martha Cook is on the Board of Directors.
"As you enter it now, you walk down a hallway, and there's a silk banner with the Brown decision 'In the field of public education separate but equal has no place,' that you see as you walk into a big empty auditorium," she says. "And that's the place where the students gathered to announce they were going to go on strike, they were going to walk out of the school on April 23, 1951."
"We were committed in what we were doing and it never occurred to us to be afraid," she adds.
John Watson was finishing his third year at Moton High school in 1951, when a fellow student named Barbara Johns invited him to go on strike and demand a better school building.
"The school was built to house less than 200 students, and there were somewhere near 450. Rather than increasing the physical plant they built these tar paper shacks around the building," he recalls. "On rainy days it rained on your head and on cold days you froze and on warm days it got hot. So when Barbara came to us, we were more than ready."
With the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the strikers went on to file an desegregation lawsuit. Davis versus the County School Board of Prince Edward County eventually prevailed in the Supreme Court. African American families throughout the South had long fought for a better education for their children. And white officials in many parts of the South had fiercely resisted integration. So why did events take such an extreme turn in Prince Edward County?
"In Prince Edward County you had a demographic situation where African-Americans made up 45 percent of the population," explains Longwood history professor Larissa Smith, the other co-chair of the university's Brown versus Board commemoration. "So white southerners felt as if they had to defend their position of power more vigorously than in other parts of the state of Virginia. And I think also because Prince Edward County was one of the five cases that comprised the Brown decision, white leaders felt like the world was watching them and therefore they had to take the lead in resisting."
When officials shut down the schools, white children who could afford the tuition went to private academies. Some black students went to live with relatives in other parts of the country, some were placed in northern schools by the American Friends Service Committee, and some stayed out of school altogether. Larissa Smith says the closings took a huge toll on the community.
"The idea of being shut out of the schools, and being denied an education--I think it was very hard for individuals," she says. "The breaking up of families, because parents lost their jobs or had to go teach elsewhere or work elsewhere and leave their children behind--the opportunities that were lost are really sort of astounding."
A local minister named L. Francis Griffin led the black community through the crisis and filed a second historic lawsuit demanding that the schools be reopened. Just a few white students returned at first, but over the years schools in Prince Edward County have become fully integrated. Last June, a belated ceremony was held for Prince Edward students who never got to graduate from their local high school.
Dorothy Green came from Connecticut to receive her diploma, and remembered how she had to move 160 kilometers away to get an education.
"It was terrible. I hated every moment, every year of it. I'm still mad about it," she says.
What happened in Prince Edward County also holds painful memories for the son of the Reverend Francis Griffin, who launched the second lawsuit. Skip Griffin says he stayed away from the county for some 20 years.
"My father died early, a very young man in 1980, from a heart attack. And I think it had a lot to do with the stressful times of this case and also his activities throughout the state of Virginia and throughout the South," he says.
But Skip Griffin believes he's inherited a positive legacy as well. He was a teenager when the schools closed down, and he spent part of that time traveling with his father. He absorbed lessons he'd draw on in his own later work in the Boston school system.
"And I really appreciate the fact he thought an important way to work out differences was through the use of words and language and having discussions with people. My father was a big believer in taking on people in debates and dialogue, where you tried to engage the other person in the process of understanding each other," he says.
John Watson also went back to southern Virginia recently to accept a human rights award. Now a radio talk show host in Delaware, he was pleased to learn that a historic marker is being placed at the home where he grew up. But he also has a concern.
"A couple of times I've been up to the school and talked to the students, and they know very little about the strike," he says. "No one is teaching them it happened. It shouldn't just be history in Virginia by the way, it should be history all over the country, because it's part of American history."
Martha Cook of the Moton Museum says that when people do talk about what happened in Prince Edward County, attention often turns to the drama of the student strike and the school closings.
"So we have tried to focus people back on the participants in the lawsuit, and what it meant that they had the courage to put themselves in that position of being very vulnerable to public opinion," she says.
Martha Cook says some feelings of guilt, resentment and bitterness remain over what happened in Prince Edward County. She believes it's important for everyone to understand that events there helped make public education in America what it is today, and gave countless people opportunities they'd otherwise have been denied.