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Closed

Black students and supporters rally at the Courthouse in May 1961. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)


_____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

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Hazel Davis dropped out of high school in 1952 to marry Robert Davidson. Their daughter, Shirley, was 6 years old in the fall of 1959, and excited about starting first grade. Hazel had made Shirley a pleated dress for the big day, and saw that her daughter got her polio vaccination.

The Davidsons were the only black family on their street at the northwest edge of Farmville. While their green-shingled, four-room Cape Cod lacked some of the amenities of nearby white homes -- it had no indoor plumbing, for example -- it was otherwise indistinguishable from the other modest homes in the neighborhood.

It was a point of particular pride to the Davidsons that passersby couldn't tell from the exterior that the house was occupied by blacks.

It wasn't unusual for black children and white children to play together -- black mothers often virtually raised many of the white babies -- so it was natural for Shirley to become friends with her neighbors Tommy Hubbard and Billy Lacks.

Hazel recalls that she had heard about threats by the whites to close the schools, but paid little attention because white folks were always threatening to do something drastic to demonstrate their fealty to the "Southern way of life." Even when it became obvious that the schools would not open on time that fall, Hazel assured her daughter that it was only a temporary situation. Like many other blacks in the county, Hazel recalls, she "just knew, as the weeks went by, that it was going to open. As far as doing anything about it, I just didn't feel I had any power."

Each morning, as she watched her white neighbors board a school bus at the edge of a driveway, Shirley pretended that she, too, was going to school. She put on a pretty dress -- her mother was pleased that Shirley wanted to look nice -- and with books in hand, skipped down the hill to wait for the bus. After it picked up the boys, she plopped beneath a shade tree and transported herself into a secret world of daydreams, filled with scenes in which the yellow bus stopped for her, too. She read and reread the few books that constituted the family's meager collection. She forced herself to return to the house for lunch and to help with the chores, but in mid-afternoon she resumed her sentinel post at the foot of the hill.

Shirley mimicked the way the boys carried their books -- arm extended, fingers wrapped around the covers -- because she had never seen a girl go off to school and she didn't know she was supposed to cradle the books to her chest. On days when she got carried away with her reading and her daydreaming, she would still be sitting beneath the tree when the bus brought Tommy and Billy back in the afternoon.

When Shirley walked back to her house, as if she too were returning from school, her mother would ask, "Where you been?" Shirley would answer, "Oh, been playing school."

As word of the school closings spread, a number of individuals and organizations came to Farmville to help the displaced black students. Foremost among them was the American Friends Service Committee, the social service branch of the Quakers. The committee dispatched field workers to assist local black ministers and the NAACP in setting up "freedom schools." The idea was to prevent the children from falling behind during what almost everyone believed would be a short period of white bravado.

Because the books and supplies used at Moton and other black schools were stored in the padlocked buildings, the centers had to rely on donations, which came from as far away as New York and Massachusetts. Many of the unemployed black teachers were hired as instructors. They held classes in the basements of black churches throughout the county.

Even at the start, when spirits were highest, the freedom schools enrolled only about 650 pupils, one-third of the displaced black pupils. Several hundred others commuted to schools in nearby counties, or were shipped off to live with relatives out of state. But most of the black children remained at home.

The challenge of teaching children at home, or in makeshift schools, was daunting. The situation worsened when black teachers found jobs elsewhere, leaving few qualified persons as instructors.

By midsummer 1960, Quaker social worker Jean Fairfax became alarmed about what was going to happen to the locked-out black children, as it became clear that the public schools were not going to open for yet another year. She started calling friends and contacts across the country, pleading for them to find families to take in the students. Dozens responded, from Massachusetts to Iowa, and in less than a month she had secured hosts for 47 students. The number eventually reached 70.

Prince Edward students who never had been far beyond the borders of the county wound up living with families in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia, and in smaller cities and college towns throughout the country. More children could have been placed except for the reluctance of parents, many of whom had never been out of the county themselves, to allow them to be sent so far from home.

James E. Ghee Jr. was sent to Iowa City, Iowa, where he lived with the family of a University of Iowa economics professor whose wife, a Japanese American, had been interned in a relocation camp during World War II. She, too, had been rescued by Quakers, who had sent her to live with a family in Chicago. She saw taking in a Prince Edward child as a way to repay the Quakers.

Moses Scott wound up in Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb, where he lived with a Jewish family in which both parents were Holocaust survivors. Like the host family in Iowa, Moses's hosts took every step to make him feel at home. They not only treated Moses like a member of their family, but moved into the basement so that he could have their master bedroom.

Carlton Terry was 12 when he was locked out of school. "I eventually got to the point where I hated whites," he recalls. "All I knew was that I wasn't in school and I knew the reason why. I realized that the legal system was not working, at least not working for me. I remember sitting at home, watching 'Amos 'n' Andy' on TV, shellshocked. I read the newspaper every day to see what would happen."

After a year, the Quakers sent him to school in Massachusetts. Terry, now 54, went on to earn degrees from Antioch College and Princeton University, and became a Foreign Service officer for the Agency for International Development in Kenya.

"I don't know why I'm not bitter," he says. "My cousin Thelma hates Virginia with a passion. I only lost one year, and I feel like I was hurt. But imagine what it must be like for those who lost four or five years, or never went back.

"I'm surprised that no one said, 'Listen, this is madness.' Why did it take so long? Why would Virginia allow that to happen? I can't understand how America let that go on."

There was virtually no communication between blacks and whites during the five years that the schools were closed. Each side continued its separate way in a place where everything imaginable was segregated -- at the drive-in movie, whites parked on one side, blacks on the other. The Rev. Douglas Goodwin, a new black pastor who moved to Farmville in May 1963, said then that he was "struck by how complacent both sides were. The grown-up Negroes were complacent even without any schools for their children. The whites say hello cheerfully on the streets but won't talk about serious issues."

"We're a courteous people. Our people have always talked back and forth," Mayor William F. Watkins Jr. boasted to an out-of-town reporter that same year.

But the civility ended abruptly that summer when groups of Northern college students and black members of the newly organized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee flocked to Farmville to tutor black children and help organize a boycott of white businesses. For several months that summer, demonstrators paraded up and down Main Street, while smaller groups staged sit-ins at popular restaurants or tried to worship in the town's white churches.

One Sunday, outside Farmville Baptist Church, a bastion of white supremacy, demonstrators knelt in prayer and song after being denied admittance. As police carried six adults and 15 juveniles to the court-house next door, a member of the congregation scolded the arrestees, saying that if they were true Christians they would not deny to others their right to worship.

Demonstrators also showed up that day at three other white churches. They were admitted to one, Johns Memorial Episcopal, where Gordon Moss, chief academic officer of Longwood College, invited seven young blacks to sit in his pew. Dean Moss's support of integration cost him his place on the church's vestry and was believed to be a factor in his being passed over for the presidency of the teachers college.

Whites remained outspoken in their contempt for the protesters and in their defiant confidence of the outcome. One of them boasted to a reporter, "When we closed the public schools four years ago, you said we would never do it. Well, we showed you."

For as long as it could, Washington took little notice of the calamity in Prince Edward. Pleas to the Eisenhower administration went unheeded, and the Kennedy administration in its early days focused its attention on violent reactions to integration in Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere.

Just before Christmas 1962, however, the Justice Department joined the NAACP as a friend of the court in its appeal of the Prince Edward case. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy argued that the federal courts had the power to require the county to levy taxes to operate desegregated public schools, notwithstanding arguments by the county and state that the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars lawsuits against states.

Then in a special message to Congress on civil rights in February 1963, President Kennedy urged a speedy resolution of the legal issues and promised remedial aid for the students when the schools reopened. He pledged to "fulfill the constitutional objective of an equal, non-segregated educational opportunity for all children."

Bobby Kennedy kept up the pressure. Speaking on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, the president's brother noted "with as much sadness as irony that outside of Africa south of the Sahara, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak [Borneo], British Honduras -- and Prince Edward County."

With pressure mounting, a temporary solution was crafted: A private school open to all students would operate until the public schools reopened. Foundations, businesses and individuals from around the country contributed $1 million for the Prince Edward County Free School. Neil V. Sullivan, a superintendent with a national reputation for innovation, took leave from his school district on Long Island and recruited a multiracial faculty from around the country.

On September 16, 1963, a full four years after the public schools had been padlocked, Shirley Davidson finally got to ride a school bus. She was among 1,520 students -- only four of them white -- who jammed four schools that were provided rent-free by the county.

Hazel had taught Shirley reading and math, and she was well prepared academically. But she quickly discovered she had a lot to learn. She noticed that the girls who had been to school before carried their books cradled in their arms. And when she wandered into the wrong rest room, she was puzzled by a row of strange fixtures that she later was told were urinals.

Neil Sullivan observed that during the opening exercises none of the children knew to salute the flag, and that when the national anthem was played in a music class, no one recognized it. Finally, one child said, "I know, it's the baseball song."

Sullivan announced that "our first task will be a mass attack on reading skills," but he confided to an interviewer that "four years' loss will never be made up entirely. All I've said is that we'll narrow the gap."

In the spring of 1964, Bobby Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, visited Farmville and accepted a package tied with a red, white and blue bow that contained 9,964 pennies Shirley and the other Free School students had collected as a gift to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library. Two weeks after the Kennedys' visit, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Prince Edward to reopen and desegregate its schools.

The May 25, 1964, ruling came 10 years and eight days after Brown.

Although the public schools were to open in the fall, the operators of the Prince Edward Academy attempted one last hurrah on behalf of state-supported segregation.

In June, the county's supervisors appropriated $180,000 to operate the public schools for the coming year. But they appropriated an equal amount for tuition grants for the academy. One month later, anticipating that a federal judge would issue an injunction the next day to block distribution of the grant money, the supervisors held an unannounced, all-night session.

More than 700 parents of academy students, who had been tipped off about the meeting, gathered at the town armory at 2 a.m. There the board doled out 1,250 grants for a total of $180,000 -- nearly half the $375,000 that the supervisors had appropriated for schools for the new term.

Robert Taylor still recalls the scheme with amusement. There was so much excitement that night, Taylor says, "you would have thought an atomic bomb went off."

Once the checks were cut, the academy parents rushed to one of the town's three banks, which opened early "so everyone could deposit them before a new court order could stop them," Taylor recalls.

Two years later, a federal appeals court ruled that the six supervisors were personally responsible for seeing the money was returned. Because some of the academy parents refused or were unable to repay, the supervisors did everything but hold bake sales to come up with money. By the spring of 1967, with the fund still $68,000 short, the supervisors, "with considerable reluctance," sued the parents who had not repaid the grants.

Prince Edward's public schools finally reopened on September 8, 1964. A faculty of 69 black and nine white teachers welcomed 1,500 students, all but eight of them black. Elementary pupils were grouped by what they knew rather than by age in hopes that some of the black children could complete more than one grade level in the first year. A few, like Shirley Davidson, were promoted right away, after tests showed that she was just one year behind where she would have been had the schools not been closed.


Moton High students file past a temporary building in 1953. ( Hank Walker - Timepix)

But some of the older black children dropped out or never returned, believing they were too old to learn. They became part of what one observer called a "crippled generation."

Funeral director Carl U. Eggleston, who was in second grade when the schools closed and in 1984 became the first black elected to the Farmville Town Council, says, "Even today, there's some folks who can't read or write and were never able to get a decent job."

Nearly all of the 70 "Quaker kids" graduated from high school, including several who returned to Prince Edward once the schools reopened. Most went on to college, earning degrees from schools such as Harvard, Iowa, Howard, Hampton, Virginia Tech, Antioch and Berea, and graduate degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Boston, Indiana and Virginia. Several became teachers, and a few became preachers.

One of the girls, Mattie Paige, returned to Farmville and in the mid-1990s was elected to the Town Council, where one council member was the former police chief who had arrested a number of the "Quaker kids" three decades earlier.

James Ghee, who had been a C-student at Moton, did so well at Iowa City High School, where he was one of only three blacks in a class of 1,000, that he wound up being an honor roll student and state champion debater, a record that earned him a four-year scholarship to the University of Iowa.

By the time Ghee graduated from Iowa in 1970, the pace of integration had stepped up enough back home that he was able to enroll in law school at the University of Virginia, after which he returned to Farmville as the county's first black lawyer.

Moses Scott also made the honor roll, at Newton High School outside Boston, where his teachers urged him to try for Harvard. He didn't think he was ready for the Ivy League, so he went instead to Howard University, where he earned a degree in mathematics and physics. After four years in the Army, a newly confident Scott returned to Boston and earned a master's degree from Harvard Business School. He now is an executive with IBM in New York.

Although the blacks had won in court, they failed to win the hearts of their white neighbors. The Prince Edward Academy continued to attract whites, though it suffered a major setback when it had to raise tuition high enough that some of the poorer white families were forced to switch back to the public schools. A larger setback occurred in the 1980s, when the Internal Revenue Service briefly revoked its tax-exempt status because it was continuing to discriminate against blacks.

The academy eventually admitted a handful of black children, most of them nonresidents of Prince Edward County. Still, whites drifted back to the public schools over the years, either for economic reasons or because Prince Edward's school system gained a reputation for having better facilities and teachers than the academy. But for many blacks, the wounds never quite healed.

A few years ago at a reunion of the Eaneses, a black family with 21 children, nearly all of whom had been affected by the school closings, Sylvia Eanes, who was in the third grade when the schools were closed, said she was placed in the eighth grade when they reopened, as though she had been in school all along. "The teachers just pushed us through, wanted us out," she recalled. After graduation, Sylvia didn't think she could spell well enough to pass the test to fulfill her goal of becoming a licensed practical nurse. She settled for a factory job.

An older brother, McCarthy, who drove a school bus for white children during the closings, was 21 when he returned to school, and 22 when he graduated. "Mac" was drafted and sent to Vietnam. "My country called me to fight in Vietnam," he recalled, "but wouldn't let me go to school."

At the Hampden-Sydney forum, the tension quickly dissipated as Willie Shepperson and Ray Moore met just offstage. Shepperson grabbed Moore's hand and guided him to the lectern as applause broke out.

"This is a new day," Shepperson declared, adding that after his chance meeting with Moore the day before, "I decided that this circle [of hate and distrust] had to be broken. The line had to be taken out of the sand. And I felt it had to begin with me."

"Every generation leaves for its children problems they created," continued Shepperson, a regional director at the Washington headquarters of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. "We have a moral duty to at least make a foundation for them so they won't make the same mistakes we made."

"I welcome Dr. Moore as a brother in this community and I hope he welcomes me as a brother."

Moore saluted Shepperson. "I am a changed person," Moore told the audience. "I was converted when I heard the eloquence of his words on this platform and the commendable distance that he placed between himself and what I know is a dark anger still hidden deep in his soul."

Shepperson replied: "We have decided that we will work together and, as a symbol of that agreement, Dr. Moore has agreed to make a substantial contribution" to the civil rights museum planned for Moton High School.

As people approached the lectern, one after another, to express or accept apologies, the symposium took on the sights and sounds of a religious revival. Most of those who spoke for the white community weren't the original perpetrators of the school closures, but rather their children.

Marcie Wall-Wolfe is an attorney and former member of the school board in Williamsburg. Her grandfather was J. Barrye Wall, the Farmville Herald publisher who led the campaign to preserve segregation, and her father was J. Barrye Wall Jr., attorney for both the newspaper and the foundation that operated the Prince Edward Academy. She told the crowd that if her father were alive today, "he would say, 'I'm sorry I took your future away.' "

Wall-Wolfe, who was just 2 years old when the schools were closed, then walked across the stage and hugged Shepperson.

A 1964 graduate of the Prince Edward Academy, Sam Putney, recalled his anger at the desperate attempt by his parents' generation to preserve a way of life that he had no desire to continue. "I wanted to pin someone against the wall, I wanted to hold someone responsible," said Putney. The county had "turned its back on all its children, black and white."

Putney, a real estate appraiser in Roanoke, said he marveled at the sense of reconciliation he felt from blacks at the conference. "It's difficult to understand forgiveness by people who have every right to be angry, accusatory and bitter, but I don't see it."

Charlotte Womack, her eyes glistening with tears, echoed Putney's words. Womack, who had been sent out of town to continue her schooling, pleaded: "Don't make anyone else pay for those years."

As they listened, Hazel Miser and her daughter, Shirley, also fought back tears. During her senior year at Prince Edward High School, from which she graduated in 1972, Shirley married Melvin Eanes -- one of the 21 Eanes children. He and Shirley have two grown children, one of whom graduated from James Madison University, the other from a technical school.

Then at age 40, Shirley enrolled at Longwood College, from which she graduated in 1997 with a degree in elementary education. She now teaches second grade -- at the Prince Edward Elementary School in Farmville.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company