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Shame of a Nation
The Lessons and Legacy of the Prince Edward School Closings

Shirley Davidson Eanes with her mother   Shirley Davidson Eanes with her mother, Hazel Mise. (Ron Aira)

_____Live Online_____
Reporter Donald Baker discusses this story, and the decades-long story of school segregation in Prince Edward County, Va., Monday at 1 p.m.

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By Donald P. Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2001; Page W08

For Hazel Miser and her daughter, Shirley Davidson Eanes, the announcement in their hometown newspaper about an upcoming conference on race relations in their rural Virginia county provoked a rush of memories and misgivings.

For decades, there had been almost no discussion between blacks and whites in Prince Edward County about what happened from 1959 to 1964 -- the years when white officials shut down the county's public schools rather than integrate, a closure that made headlines around the world.

Hazel, now 65, was a freshman at the county's all-black high school when students walked out in 1951 to protest the shabby conditions there. Eight years later, Shirley's education was disrupted by the county's decision to close the schools. Now those memories, stored away like a giant skeleton in a communal closet for nearly half a century, were going to be dusted off and discussed at a five-day symposium titled "Prince Edward Stories: Race, Schools, America," scheduled to take place at Hampden-Sydney College, just outside Farmville, the county seat.

Some residents of Farmville, population 6,500, feared a public airing would revive memories of the ugly role played by the county and the state of Virginia in the nation's protracted struggle for racial equality. Others had more personal reasons for staying away from a conference that seemed to suggest an attempt at racial healing.

"I'm just not ready for that kind of stuff," said a 53-year-old black professional whose father was fired from his job as a janitor at the black high school as a result of the school closings, and who himself was sent out of the state to get his high school education.

Robert E. Taylor also decided to ignore the October 1999 conference, because he didn't believe that he and other white leaders had anything to atone for. Taylor helped build a private whites-only school that was financed in large part with state funds. He contended that closing the schools was no more about integration than the Civil War was about slavery. Both, he insisted, were disputes over states' rights that trapped whites and blacks in a political argument.

Some whites expressed concern about what might happen at the conference. Ray A. Moore Jr., an elderly physician who served on the all-white school board during the closings, warned that one of the scheduled black speakers, Willie T. Shepperson, who participated in the 1951 protest as an eighth-grader, might incite violence.

Still, Hazel and Shirley, now 48, decided they would attend as many sessions as possible. Mother and daughter were curious as to what whites and blacks in Prince Edward -- folks who for the most part had said so little to each other for so long -- might finally have to say now.

When the day came and it was Willie Shepperson's turn to speak, he didn't mince words. He told the crowd that he had encountered Ray Moore outside the auditorium the day before. "All the old hostilities built up inside me, and the resentment," he recalled. The school closings spawned "a circle of hate and distrust," Shepperson said, and one of the people responsible was Moore.

Now Shepperson searched the audience for Moore, calling out, "Where are you?"

A short, graying man rose and answered, "Here."

The two men started toward each other, Shepperson from the stage, Moore from the seats below. The audience held its breath.

These days, Farmville is a small, well-kept town just this side of quaint. You can sip a mocha or dine on non-fast food in its restaurants, browse for antiques and roam for hours in the handsome brick warehouses and converted showrooms of Green Front, the giant furniture store that folks flock to from as far away as Washington, 170 miles to the north. Thanks to the presence of two colleges, there are regular concerts, plays, athletic contests and a summer music festival. Other than a couple of plaques on the lawn of the deserted Robert Russa Moton High School, there's nothing to indicate that for more than a decade this Southside Virginia community was ground zero in the civil rights struggle.

It was April 23, 1951, when Hazel Miser (then Hazel Davis) and her fellow students went on strike at overcrowded Moton High, demanding facilities equal to those of the newer white high school. Moton, designed to accommodate 180 pupils, was overcrowded almost from the day it opened in 1939, and by 1951 the building was bulging with 450 students. Four years earlier, the state had offered to fund an addition if the county would provide matching funds, but the all-white board of supervisors had refused. Instead, it had installed three tar-paper buildings in the back yard, which Hazel Davis and her classmates dubbed the "chicken shacks." Another class met in a school bus in the parking lot.

The demonstration occurred four years before Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and nine years before the sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. It set in motion events that forever changed the landscape of American education, and arguably marked the start of the modern civil rights movement.

The students didn't get a new school, at least not right away. But one of Hazel Davis's classmates became one of four lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit known as Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

Brown was only the beginning of the struggle for desegregation. In defiance of the court's decision, Virginia enacted a series of laws that came to be known as Massive Resistance. Embracing the states' rights principles of the Confederacy, the General Assembly essentially declared the Supreme Court decision null and void. The legislature passed new laws empowering the state to seize and shut down any local school system rather than submit to court-ordered integration. Another law set up state funding for private segregated schools in those localities. The state's most prominent white politicians -- ranging from U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., leader of the ruling Byrd organization, to then-Gov. J. Lindsay Almond and future governor Mills Godwin -- backed these laws, denouncing integration as "a cancer" and "a sickness in the heart." They were egged on by James J. Kilpatrick, a young conservative ideologue who championed defiance in fiery editorials for the Richmond News Leader.

Massive Resistance collapsed in 1959 under assault in state and federal courts. But Prince Edward forged on alone for five more years. The county's 1,550 white students attended a private academy financed in part with state funds, while its 1,800 black students were locked out. The county became a symbol of white intolerance and a national disgrace, until federal courts finally ordered it to reopen its schools in 1964.

Today, Prince Edward's public schools are thoroughly integrated, with about 90 percent of the county's white students enrolled in schools where the majority of students are black. But the events in Prince Edward have cast a long shadow over attempts at racial reconciliation in the Old Dominion.

For years local officials sought to ignore or bury the past. The county Board of Supervisors for a time blocked historic designation for the old Moton High School building. "We don't want this to become a race problem," then-Board Chairman Hugh Carwile declared in 1995, saying he'd much prefer to see the building demolished. "People tell me it's a constant reminder, like rubbing salt in a wound."

State officials seemed at least as ambivalent. Godwin, who went on to serve two terms as governor, steadfastly refused to apologize for his role in championing Massive Resistance, conceding only that times had changed. With the exception of a few principled oppositionists, an entire generation of white political leaders carried a blemish on their record. The state has no plans to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the struggle in Prince Edward.

But not everyone has forgotten. Earlier this year, a nonprofit organization, spurred by a group of elderly black women who are members of the Martha E. Forrester Council of Women -- some of them former teachers in the old Negro schools -- purchased the Moton building, which is now designated a National Historic Landmark. They plan to reopen it as a museum honoring its role in the civil rights movement. The Farmville Herald, once a beacon of white supremacy, now ardently supports the museum project. Folks in Farmville will mark the 50th anniversary on April 23 with a ceremony that will include a reenactment of the walkout.

The Prince Edward story is a tale of racial domination and intolerance. It demonstrates the extremes to which a fearful community will go in the name of self-preservation. But it also is a tale of courage and perseverance. And it began at Moton High School on a quiet Monday morning in the spring of 1951 with the seemingly innocent announcement of a special assembly.

M. Boyd Jones's morning was interrupted by an anonymous telephone message warning that two of his students were about to get into trouble with the law at the Greyhound bus station in town. The Moton High School principal dashed out to intervene. Shortly after he left, a note was delivered to each classroom calling for an emergency assembly. The note bore a forgery of Jones's trademark "J" signature.

The meeting started normally enough, with a senior quieting the buzz by leading students in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. But then the atmosphere abruptly changed. Instead of Jones at the lectern, there stood a member of the junior class, Barbara Rose Johns. And instead of singing the national anthem, Johns told the teachers, "I want you all out of here," pounding her shoe on a bench for emphasis. Most of the teachers were stunned to be addressed that way by a student, but they complied.

It was an audacious act for a 16-year-old. But Barbara Johns came from a family that knew something about audacity. Her uncle was a brilliant and argumentative preacher, the Rev. Vernon Johns, who was fired from his pulpit in Montgomery, Ala., because of his hell-raising sermons, only to be replaced by another radical, Martin Luther King Jr. Vernon Johns visited Prince Edward frequently, and even when he wasn't around, his imprint was, in stacks of books that Barbara dipped into after finishing her homework.

Barbara's parents were from Prince Edward, but they had moved to New York City during the Depression in search of work. She was born there in 1935. The family later moved to Washington, and Barbara was sent back to Prince Edward to live with her grandparents.

Although it lacked facilities and amenities, Moton High had that most important element -- dedicated teachers. Barbara's favorite was her music teacher, who listened patiently to her dreams and complaints. During one of their after-school talks, Barbara expressed her unhappiness with conditions at the school. The teacher replied: "Why don't you do something about it?"

The challenge made her think, Barbara would later recall. Her thoughts crystallized one day while waiting for the rattletrap bus that took her to school, when a shiny yellow bus passed by, carrying students to all-white Farmville High School.

"Right then and there," Barbara would write, "I decided, indeed, something had to be done about this inequality. I prayed for help. That night, whether in a dream or whether I was awake, a plan began to formulate in my mind. A plan that I felt was divinely inspired."

On the day of the special assembly, Barbara delivered an impassioned speech in which she reviewed the complaints about the building -- the tar-paper additions that served as overflow classrooms, the used and crumbling books, the decrepit school buses, the absence of science labs. She urged her fellow students to go on strike until the county's six white supervisors agreed to meet their demands for a new school.

The students were still in the auditorium when the principal returned from his wild goose chase. He pleaded with them to stay in school, but their fervor had been aroused. Jones left quietly, and the students finalized their plans. They then marched down the hill to the county courthouse and confronted the school superintendent with their demands.

Barbara assured the students that if they stuck together, no one would be punished. For one thing, she told them, the tiny Farmville jail was too small to hold them.

Hazel Davis went along with the strike, but she was frightened. "Until the strike, no one ever challenged," she says. "You just go along. You don't have the thing within to challenge it; you don't have the means to challenge it."

The students consulted with the Rev. Leslie Francis Griffin of the black First Baptist Church, who was known as "the fighting preacher" because of his outspokenness. He suggested they contact Oliver W. Hill of Richmond, one of the most prominent black lawyers in the state. Hill worked for the NAACP.

Hill, a Howard Law School friend of the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall, had been suing state and local governments throughout the South for years over separate and unequal facilities. He and his partner, Spottswood Robinson III, were familiar with the conditions at Moton.

Hill and Robinson had file cabinets bulging with cases and no room or appetite for more. But, as he later recalled, Barbara Johns's phone call was persuasive. He and Robinson were due to visit distant Pulaski County two days later and agreed to stop in Farmville on the way. When they did, Hill and Robinson were impressed with the young protesters and expressed a willingness to take up their case. But they had one crucial condition. The NAACP was not interested in suing the county merely to get a new, segregated high school. Hill told the students they'd have to go much further -- to insist on ending segregated schools altogether.

The strike continued until the close of the school year. White officials were quick to respond. Within a few weeks, they terminated Jones's contract, accusing him unjustly of playing a clandestine role in the walkout. At the same time, they appropriated $875,000 to build a new high school for blacks.

By then it was too late. On May 23, after hundreds of black parents had signed a petition of support, Hill and Robinson filed suit at the federal courthouse in Richmond on behalf of 117 Moton students, demanding that the Virginia law enforcing segregated schools be voided.

The case was heard by a three-judge panel in Richmond, beginning on February 25, 1952. After five days of testimony in a historic courtroom that had been the scene of the treason trials of Aaron Burr and Jefferson Davis, the judges declined to order an end to segregation. But they found that the black schools in Prince Edward County were inferior to their white counterparts and ordered that the facilities be equalized.

The NAACP appealed the ruling. Two years later the case was incorporated with three other lawsuits, from Kansas, South Carolina and Delaware, along with a similar one filed in the District of Columbia. The U. S. Supreme Court, under its new chief justice, Earl Warren, unanimously decreed on May 17, 1954, that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place."

White officials throughout the South reacted with anger and dismay. But because the high court had not prescribed a timetable to end segregation, nothing happened until a year later, when the justices issued Brown II, calling for desegregation "with all deliberate speed."

That day happened to be the deadline in Virginia for adopting county budgets. Several hundred angry whites showed up at the courthouse in Farmville, urging the supervisors not to appropriate money to operate integrated schools. The supervisors complied, but the next month, they became convinced that integration would not be ordered for the approaching school year. They reversed themselves and adopted a budget funded on a month-to-month basis. Still, as a hedge against the inevitable, 1,300 whites convened in Farmville and organized a fund for a private whites-only academy.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, the governor convened a special session of the legislature to enact a series of Massive Resistance laws. For school districts that received court orders to integrate, the laws eliminated compulsory attendance, provided funding for tuition grants to private schools and, as a last resort, authorized closing the schools.

In a special referendum on January 9, 1956, Virginia voters by a ratio of 2 to 1 approved amending the state constitution to allow the issuance of tuition grants. In Prince Edward and elsewhere in Southside Virginia, the measure passed by 4 to 1. (The state's voter rolls were almost exclusively white.)

"It's like we'd won the War Between the States," exulted the author of the plan, state Sen. Garland Gray, one of Harry F. Byrd's chief lieutenants.

Federal judges soon punctured the euphoria. By the start of the 1958-59 school year, schools in Front Royal, Charlottesville and Norfolk were under court order to integrate. In each of those areas, the state seized and closed the whites-only schools rather than allow even token integration. About 12,000 students were affected. Some of them, with the aid of state tuition grants, enrolled in hastily founded private schools similar to the one being planned in Prince Edward.

But on January 19, 1959 -- Robert E. Lee's 152nd birthday -- the segregationists' cause was hit a double blow. A three-judge federal panel ruled that closing the schools violated the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection, and the Virginia Supreme Court found that cutting off state funds to prevent integration also violated the state constitution. In some ways the state court ruling, by a 5-to-2 vote, had the greater impact in Richmond. Gov. Lindsay Almond defied Byrd, his political benefactor, by ordering public schools to reopen.

Massive Resistance was finished, as far as the state of Virginia was concerned. But whites in Prince Edward decided to go it alone.

We were a county of like-thinking people," Robert E. Taylor is saying, and when the choice came down to integrate or close the schools, the community chose the latter. "So many people were together on that. People were trying to save their children, both black and white."

Taylor is 81 now, and he's sitting in a paneled office beneath a stuffed deer head and surrounded by plaques that laud his community leadership. He makes the entire school-closing episode sound more like a matter of fate than choice. "It had to happen," he says. "We were picked as a test case. Nothing you could do. The federal government said we had to integrate and the state said we couldn't."

In fact, from the beginning, whites in Prince Edward were largely unified around the cause of preserving segregation. The Farmville Herald was a key part of the campaign, denouncing the desegregation suit as the work of "a vocal minority, craftily led, agitated by outside influences."

Herald publisher J. Barrye Wall and his son helped found the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberty, a grass-roots organization of whites dedicated to protecting the status quo. It wasn't just a question of preserving segregation, Wall editorialized, but of protecting the South from communism, the NAACP and racial "amalgamation." The Defenders saw Prince Edward as the South's first line of defense, a sentiment that Harry Byrd endorsed. "If Virginia surrenders, if Virginia's line is broken, the South will go down, too," he warned.

The Defenders officially opposed violence, and their presence prevented more extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan from getting a foothold. But opponents, black and white, were harassed in a variety of ways. Barbara Johns's family sent her to live with relatives in Alabama, after a cross was burned on the lawn. County Negro Farm Agent John Lancaster was fired from his post because he was considered too friendly with L. Francis Griffin, the activist black minister. Griffin himself was reduced to poverty when white businessmen called in his debts in a coordinated campaign, repossessing his car and shutting off shipments of heating oil to his house.

For the most part, the white community united behind Wall's strident campaign. When a handful of local business leaders, led by School Board Chairman Lester Andrews, got together to advocate keeping open the public schools, they were ostracized by other whites and branded as "integrationists."

Undeterred by the courts, Prince Edward geared up for the transition to private schools. On June 3, 1959, the supervisors announced "with the most profound regret" their decision not to appropriate money to operate public schools beginning in September.

Taylor was one of eight founders of the all-white Prince Edward Academy. He owned the construction firm that helped build it. The academy opened on September 10 with 1,475 white students, just 87 fewer than had attended the white public schools the previous year, and with all of the system's 66 white teachers hired at their old salaries. The academy did not accept the state's tuition grants in its first year, fearing they would weaken its legal position, but thousands of dollars poured in from out-of-state supporters of segregation. In December, the academy's boosters formed a fund for establishing private schools for blacks, but the effort was dropped after only one black child was registered.

Taylor is still defensive about that. "Nobody thought that we ought to keep children out of school," he says. Snapping his fingers, he adds, "I could have raised the money just like that. But the NAACP put a clamp on that. That cost the black children four years of education. We get blamed, but it was not our fault. We honestly tried to take care of the black kids, too."

But while the school closings applied equally to pupils of both races, there was nothing equal about its effect. The consequences were borne almost entirely by the county's 1,800 black students.

Continued on Page 2

© 2001 The Washington Post Company