Prince Edward County, 1979: “Just Say That We Remember”

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.

Monday, May 17, 1954: The Supreme Court handed down its school desegregation decision, and certain politicians in the South folded the corners of their calendars on the date, for opprobrious naming later on. 

May 17, 1954: Governor Thomas Stanley of Virginia said that the Supreme Court decision called for "cool heads, calm study and sound judgment." He promised to consult "leaders of both races" in the state. 

May 17, 1954: Officials of Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield county schools said that they would sit tight until a non-segregation policy pattern was formulated by the state. May 17, 1954: Virginia Senator Harry Flood Byrd, leader of the Party, said that the decision "will bring implications and dangers of the greatest consequence." 

May 19, 1954: Governor Stanley said that he would appoint a study commission (no mention of "both races") and that the present policies of segregation would remain in effect for the coming year. 

June 20, 1954: Fourth District leaders met in the Petersburg fire house and declared themselves "un• alterably opposed" to integration in the schools. The meeting was presided over by State Senator Garland Gray, a high Byrd official who was to be appointed to head Governor Stanley's study commission. 

June 25, 1954: Five weeks after his moderate statement on the Supreme Court's decision, Governor Stanley declared: "I shall use every legal means at my command to continue segregated schools in Virginia.  


Step into the Weyanoke Hotel in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia, and you fall through a Wonderland rabbit hole 20 years deep. The elderly "colored" man lingering in attendance by the manually operated elevator wears deeper wrinkles but exudes the same faintly Stepin Fetchit aura. He is the only black in the hotel. 

At dinner among the good ladies and gentlemen - traveling tradesmen and proper townspeople, all white, white, white. Beer is served, but only by request: the waitress leans close to explain in a whisper, "We don't put it on the menu." 

Prim, proper, resistant to change, this was the Weyanoke Hotel in the 1950s and now; and to a considerable extent, this was Prince Edward County, where segregationists in the "battle between gentlemen" closed their public schools for four years between 1959 and 1964. No bombs were thrown, no gunshots exchanged, little physical violence offered. Only 1,700 casualties - 1,700 black, school-age children, the great majority of whom had little formal education during that period. 

The sensation of time frozen in the past was one answer to my questions of progress in Prince Edward County. "We have had some deaths," commented Dr. C.G. Gordon Moss, retired dean of women at Longwood College and leader of white efforts to preserve the public school system open to all, "but I haven't noticed any spiritual transformation." 

The Reverend L. Francis Griffin, the black Baptist pastor who, following a 1951 student strike for a new black high school, assumed leadership of the black community's efforts to desegregate the schools, put it this way: "We are bringing more blacks to middle-class status, but we still don't have any control over economics; we're still the last to be hired and the first to be fired." 

James E. Ghee, the first black lawyer to establish a full-time practice in Prince Edward, sounds an equally pessimistic note: "I suspect that if the same people of Prince Edward who closed the schools in 1959 were confronted with the same choice today they would do the same thing." 

Yet, for all the stasis, there is an undertow of sorts at work, and there has been change. 

The public schools, first of all, are open and desegregated. The segregationists lost the major battle years ago with the reopening of the public schools under federal order in 1964. The great majority of white children still attend the private Prince Edward Academy, but the constantly increasing white attendance in the public schools indicates that the process of desegregation may speed up in the coming years. 

Then there is James Ghee himself. The presence of a black lawyer in a former segregationist stronghold is an element of change, and one with an exponential effect. He is involved, for instance, in the establishment of legal aid societies in a number of Southside Virginia communities. There is also evidence that the faculties of Prince Edward's two institutions of higher learning - who displayed a tragic unwillingness to aid the effort to keep open the schools - are beginning to play a more positive role in the county's life. 

Each of these advances deserves a closer look. In a sense, each stems from the history of school desegregation in Prince Edward, a history as rich in civil rights activism as any in the rural South. 

In 1951, the black students at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, walked out on strike, protesting inadequacy of facilities, particularly the three "tar paper shack" buildings put up as temporary classrooms in 1948. Moton was grossly overcrowded and community leaders had been working for some time to get county commissioners to appropriate money for a new "Negro" school. The shacks leaked, were cold drafty in the winter, and symbolized the emptiness of the "separate but equal" doctrine in a county with a modern white high school. The strike changed the goal of Rev. Griffin and the goal of many younger black—and a few white leaders— to desegregation, not a new but still racially separated school. While Griffin's strong stance against segregation followed the students' action, he soon took the lead in a sermon declaring that “I know God does not desire segregation” 

The Moton student strike, encouraged by progressive black leaders but genuinely a product of youth idealism, came at the best possible time. The NAACP had just recently attacked segregation in the Briggs case in Clarendon County, South Carolina (see page 5). With the help of Griffin and the state NAACP, Prince Edward took part, along with the Briggs case, in the consolidated school desegregation suit that slowly worked its way up to the Supreme Court where it would, in 1954, make history as Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.

But the Prince Edward situation was an example of civil rights activism, in a sense much more closely related to the sit-ins and Freedom Rides ahead in the 1960 s than to the cut-and-dried litigations of the 1950s over inadequate black schools. The blacks of Prince Edward, led by 15-year-old Barbara  Johns, had taken to the streets carrying crudely drawn banners of defiance. That they were children of school age posed a symbolism of hope for the future as much as it did redress for the past.

Whether or not Prince Edward was a model for further civil rights activism, it was to bear a scar from the Supreme Court decision that no other community in the country suffered. In the years immediately following the 1954 Brown decision, local whites began organizing to oppose desegregation. While some parts of the South acceded to the Court decisions, the whites who controlled Prince Edward led the county into its "experiment in ignorance." After years of preparation by the “Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties," Prince Edward closed its schools in 1959 (see box). Attempts were even made by the foundation running the whites-only private schools to buy the empty white public high school. The county's blacks, with no place for their children to go to school, would have four years in which to accumulate special grievances.

The residue of the Prince Edward [illegible] was a virtually all-black public school system and a private school for whites, funded from inside and outside the county, with essentially the same faculty as the previous white schools. But, in recent years, there has been a slow chipping away at the solidity of the white position: in 1969 only two dozen whites attended the public schools; now one out of five of the roughly 2,000 public school students are white.

Attorney Ghee is among those who think there is a good chance that the county's private school system is headed for deep, treacherous waters. There is, he argues, a major challenge to its tax-exempt status, part of a web of national litigation in which Prince Edward is enmeshed. But even if the system survives this threat, there are financial problems. "I think inflation has been the worst enemy the private schools have, and if the county goes to 100 percent of appraised value for real-estate taxes, you might find a flurry of exits from the private schools into the public schools." 

How good are the schools now? You can get contrasting opinions readily enough. Griffin thinks the public schools in the county are roughly comparable to those which stayed open in adjoining counties. He also believes that the public and private schools in Prince Edward are roughly comparable in terms of what they offer and how well they teach it. "This county muffed a great chance to establish an educational model back in 1964. It had the chance to get money from the government to help rehabilitate those black children and to use that money wisely to show how to educate kids from a rural, poor background .... It didn't do that; it was a failure of imagination - or initiative." 

Even today, Prince Edward devotes a significantly smaller proportion of its yearly expenditures to education than do surrounding counties. But the situation has certainly improved since 1962, when Prince Edward spent $38,000 on education while neighboring Cumberland, with one half the population, spent $435,000. 

During the 1963-64 school year, a "Free Sch9ol" for the children who had been shut out was operated amidst a certain amount of fanfare and with glowing claims of success by its administrators. Griffin does not feel that the school accomplished the success claimed. In 1964, a Michigan State University team studied the educational impact of the closings on the black children of the county and concluded that irreparable damage had probably occurred. Of the 1,700 children involved, the study said, approximately 1,100 had practically no formal or very little formal education during the years the schools were closed. But no follow-up has been done since that time. 

Attorney Ghee and others are trying to bring together these former students - described by Moss and others as "the crippled generation." An "alumni" association has been formed composed of blacks who would have been in either the elementary or high school during the years the schools were closed. The organization's major goal is to establish a directory to help members provide each other with housing, job possibilities and other necessities to a constantly migrating population. In addition, the organization provides scholarship money to needy, promising black students of the community to continue their education - if they express a desire to return to Prince Edward. 

The sense of continuity, the need to believe that at least some of the potential leaders raised in the community will return to right wrongs, remains intense in Prince Edward. Some, like Ghee, do return. "We helped him get out of here and get his education," Griffin says, "and I kept telling him that once he got his little act together, he'd be gone and we'd hear from him every Christmas real faithful." The preacher grins: "He fooled us. He came back." 

Ghee, who got his law degree from the University of Virginia, concedes that there was a certain amount of skepticism about his returning to Prince Edward. He was working in Richmond for the prestigious law firm that includes among its partners Oliver Hill, the NAACP lawyer who had much to do with the original Prince Edward suit that became part of Brown

"My friends told me that if I came back here the folks would be paying me in produce and chickens," he laughed. "Now they are asking me if there is room for them to come in. In a way, it's surprising, but the people here want service and are willing to pay for it." 

His clients include some whites, and he is involved in both nonracial and civil-rights-inspired litigation. Of the major civil rights issues that remain to be taken up in the courts, he lists employment first. 

Ghee is not the only native Prince Edward black to return. Others have done so, including a number of participants in the original Moton school strike. One of these is the Reverend James Samuel Williams. Because Williams' mother opposed the 1951 strike, he played only a minor role; in 1963, however, while serving informally as assistant to Reverend Griffin, he was arrested and jailed along with other protesters trying to desegregate a theater and two lunch counters. Williams later spent several years in Buffalo, New York, developing special ministries - a settlement house, a VISTA program, community organizations. 

Returning recently to Farmville, Williams worked with a community-based organization, but that employment ended recently, and he is looking for something to do. "One thing, I'm not interested much in preaching sermons on Sunday and then going home to work on next Sunday's sermon. I want to get involved in the issues that are important to blacks in Prince Edward - particularly employment." 

He is sure that the school strike 28 years ago settled his attitude so far as this aspect of his ministry is concerned. He is disturbed only that a younger generation of Prince Edward blacks often do not know about what happened in the county between 1951 and 1964. "It's something that should be taught," he feels, "but remember, the entire mood of the nation is different now. Young people in their twenties don't even know what transpired back then." 

It is certainly true that the approach to problems of a racial nature is different now than it was in the turbulent '60s. Much of the burden for action has been taken up by men like Ghee, who looks the model of conservative propriety in dress, a successful, buttoned-down lawyer. Yet the legal aid society movement with which he is involved may have more potential for creating change than many of the highly publicized activist demonstrations of the 1960s. "I can tell you this, " Ghee says, "when the state bar association heard about [the legal aid societies], they went and I went to Lynchburg and was called a gangster for not getting the bar sociation involved." 

The efforts to set up legal societies in Farmville - to supply legal assistance to poor people who would otherwise go unrepresented— is nothing new. Gordon Moss spearheaded such an effort in the 1960s with the Reverend Griffin's assistant. Moss remembers the bar association's opposition to it. Griffin remembers that opposition, too. "In all your life," he recalls with a chuckle, “you never saw so many lawyers suddenly anxious to help the poor." 

The potential impact of legal aid offices is best understood in reference to the numbers involved. Lynchburg, Danville and South Boston offices are already open. When Farmville and Emporia offices open in 1979, there will be 15 to 17 lawyers serving the area's poor people. "Hopefully,” says Ghee, "that will bring us out of the Dark Ages." 

Among other activist organizations that are relatively new to Southside Virginia is the Fifth District Voters League. The Fifth District covers the same region as the legal aid society offices. The League was created partly out of frustration stemming from a reapportionment the Virginia General Assembly based on the 1970 census. The aim of the reapportionment was to prevent a black congressman from being elected in the old Fourth District, a real possibility ever since S.L. Tucker, a veteran civil rights lawyer, got 27,000 votes in 1964. 

The existence of the League and the legal aid offices doesn't mean that Southside Virginia is on the verge of being galvanized into a new activism. As both Ghee and Williams noted, the mood of the entire country is different now, less intense, less demonstrative. But in this less abrasive mood, one group which abrogated its responsibility in the trying years of massive resistance has finally begun to be involved in community affairs - the faculties of predominantly white Longwood College for women in Farmville and Hampden-Sydney College. 

Ghee, for one, sees a sharp increase in the amount of involvement by liberal faculty members. "For one thing, they send their kids to public schools .... But beyond that, there has been a member of the school board from Longwood since the schools reopened. A professor from Longwood is chairman of the Democratic party committee, which also includes a member from the Hampden-Sydney faculty. Hampden-Sydney officials have taken an active part in developing a recreation center primarily for blacks in that part of the county." 

Dr. Moss agrees that Hampden-Sydney is involved, but he is less inclined to see change at Longwood. He suffered through long years of virtual ostracism while on the Longwood faculty as a result of the forthright stand he took in favor of desegregation. Asked how he is treated now that he is long retired and living as a private citizen in Farmville, he smiled. "The same people, more or less, treat me more or less the same way. Most people will speak to me now when they pass me on the street, anyway." 

The Reverend Griffin thinks that the increased participation in community affairs by the more liberal-leaning faculty members of the county's two colleges is a sign of the times. "Remember, black people didn't participate anything like they should have in the affairs of Prince Edward County back then either. They now participate maybe because whites don't react as sharply as they once did. You can go to an NAACP meeting now without anyone taking your name down. I expect it's the same with the whites - the pressure is off." 

Gordon Moss still attends NAACP meetings with the preacher, but both of these men are older; Moss is retired and Griffin nearing that age. If important issues are to be resolved in Prince Edward County - employment perhaps the most striking of them - it will come as a result of the work of Ghee and Williams and other younger leaders of the county. 

Meanwhile, the memory of the school closings has not entirely dissipated. The Branch-Moton Prince Edward Alumni Association is planning to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the school closings in the fall of 1979 with a meeting and major speaker. 

Perhaps "commemorate," with its implications of proud or happy recollection, is not the word. "Call it an observance," says Ghee. "Or just say that we remember."