Breaking the polite silence

In 1959, Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed all its public schools to avoid integration. Classes did not resume until 1964. No other jurisdiction in the US has ever taken such action. The white elite quickly established a private academy for their own children, using resources from the closed schools and vouchers provided by the state. Meanwhile, 1,700 black children were shut out of their schools. Some were sent to be with families or friends in other counties or states; many never regained the five lost years of education.  

The struggle for civil rights – and white resistance to change – in Prince Edward County began in 1951 when Barbara Johns led a student strike to protest conditions in Farmville’s all-black Moton High School. It led to Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which became part of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, which outlawed segregation in public schools for the entire country. 

Henry Marsh, a civil rights attorney who became Richmond’s first black mayor and later served as state senator, says, “The revolution …took wings in Prince Edward County. The spirit of blacks in Prince Edward is the spirit that fired the civil rights movement to overturn Plessy v Ferguson,” (the 1896 decision which enshrined the “separate but equal” doctrine).

Recently, I attended a preview of a new documentary in the making, They Closed Our Schools. Afterwards, three Prince Edward County natives who grew up in Farmville discussed their vastly different experiences of privilege and exclusion.   

With the schools closed, Dorothy Lockett had to walk three miles to attend a makeshift school in a church basement. Later, her father rented a derelict house in a neighboring county so that his children could attend school in that district. The house was in such poor condition that they could not live in it, but every morning they would enter by the back door and come out by the front door when the school bus arrived. Over time, children from other families joined them until finally 21 children would come out the front door to board the bus. “We had only one book in our home,” said Dorothy, whose grandmother was born an enslaved woman and lived to age 113. “But we had to read the newspaper every day and be able to discuss it.”   

Kittrell College, an African Methodist Episcopal junior college in North Carolina, offered space in its high school department and the black community’s Prince Edward County Christian Association helped 61 students to attend. One of them was Charles Taylor. (His cousin was sent to be with a family in Ohio: “They were white and vegetarian!”)  Charles was reluctant to go because it meant leaving his best friend behind, plus there was no sports program at Kittrell. “I was miserable for the first few months.” 

Many years later, Kristen Green attended Prince Edward Academy, the private school which had been set up for white children. The first black students were accepted in 1986 when Kristen was in 8th grade. Because of Virginia’s pervasive culture of polite silence, she only discovered the history of public school closings long after she left and had become a successful journalist. 

While in Oregon and California reporting on immigration and poverty, Kristen began to question what had happened in her home town. Her new book, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, is a compelling narrative about her family, her home town and the struggle for civil rights. It is her personal “journey of discovery,” peeling back the layers of history and acknowledging her place of privilege.   

Within months of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the white elite met to draw up their battle plan. They created a statewide organization, the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, and began putting in place a plan to deny state funds for schools forced to desegregate. They went on to create the Prince Edward School Foundation and collected hundreds of pledges in order to fund a white school. When the court’s mandate was finally enforced, they were ready.

Virginia’s response to integration was “massive resistance”, a phrase coined by Virginia Senator Harry Byrd who led the political opposition to integration. By 1965, thirteen private schools were established in Virginia. By 1974, the region’s 3500 academies enrolled 750,000 students. Ten percent of Virginia’s white children were attending private schools. Resistance in Virginia and especially Prince Edward County became a model for other southern states.

In the course of Kristen Green’s research she discovered that her grandfather (her mother’s father) had been deeply involved in the school closing. He was a member of the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberty and a founder of the Farmville’s white academy. Kristen was stunned. “To me he was the perfect grandfather. I rode the tractor at his farm; he taught me how to fish.  I realized that someone you love and admire could also be something else.” 

She said her parents have been supportive of her writing project but that it was hard for her mother who taught in the academy most of her working life. “The first time she read the book she said, ‘I hated it.’ The second time she said, ‘It’s all true.’ The third time she said, ‘It’s a pretty good book.’”

The panel conversation reflected the determination of black parents to get education for their children. In her book, Kristen writes poignantly that Elsie Lancaster, a black woman who loyally served Kristen’s grandparents and parents as house cleaner and child minder, and who had helped take care of Kristen herself, sent her own talented daughter to an aunt in Boston. She stayed up north for decades. This was never discussed in Kristen’s family.  

Those who experienced the school closings are survivors. Some of them even thrived. 

Charles Taylor went on to spend 20 years in the US Army, including two tours of duty in Vietnam where he was race relations consultant to General Schwarzkopf.  Dorothy Lockett attended Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1972, she was hired as the first minority professional staff of the Virginia Employment Commission in Farmville, Virginia where she worked for 31 years. “Many of the people who came in looking for a job were people who had lost their schooling and who needed help,” she recalled. She is now chair of the Moton Museum Council, the site of the 1951 student strike. 

The museum, which tells the story of the Farmville student protest and the school closings, has become a place of dialogue and healing where white and black can hear each other’s stories. Charles Taylor serves as a member of the Council. He said, “I have experienced cancer, divorce and being shot at, but nothing was as painful as the closing of the schools. But I still love Farmville.” 

The panel discussion underscored the power of the white elite who controlled Price Edward County and the failure of the two local colleges and the churches to speak out. As Brian Grogan, the producer of They Closed Our Schools, put it, “It was all about race and class.” 

He recalled the words of Senator Harry Byrd: “Why do we need all these schools? They are just going to work on the farm.”  

Kristen Green, whose husband is of mixed racial heritage, now has two daughters in a Richmond public school where they have friends of all races and backgrounds. They are fortunate to live in a neighborhood with an excellent school, but in her book Kristen reflects on the difficult choices facing many parents who want to participate in public schools in a city where most white parents have abandoned the school system.  In different circumstances she might make different choices. “We want the best for our children, just as my grandfather did for his.”

Brian Grogan concluded the panel by commenting that the story of Prince Edward County highlights what public education means for America. “It is the foundation piece for democracy. The key issues are still with us today.”