Prince Edward County, VA

Prince Edward County became a national story when it closed its public schools rather than integrate them in 1959, and kept them closed for five years. Prince Edward had long been in the storm of litigation over desegregation. One of the cases that went to the Supreme Court in the Brown decision came out of the county, Dorothy Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County. That case began in 1951 with the student protest at Robert Russa Moton High School led by senior Barbara Johns. Johns and the other student leaders staged a "student strike" to get the white school board officials to build a long promised new black high school facility. Their actions prompted state NAACP counsel Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson to meet with parents and students. The students held firm to their convictions and the NAACP took on the case but expanded it to challenge the practice of segregation itself. After the Brown decision came down and the failure of statewide massive resistance plans, Prince Edward white officials decided in 1959 not to appropriate any county funds for the public education system, and instead used tuition grants beginning in 1960 from both the state and the county to give parents the funds to pay for private schools. White parents and officials set up a private, segregated academy, but black parents refused as a matter of principle to establish a counterpart private black school. Instead black parents continued to push through the courts to desegregate public schools. In the meantime, some black parents educated their children at home, while others sent their children to other counties and states to live with relatives and friends. The Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals denied that Prince Edward's school closing violated the state constitution, as well as upheld the state and county tuition grants for children who attended private schools, and the county's tax concessions for those who made contributions to private schools. The same opinion also held that each county had "an option to operate or not to operate public schools." With little change over several years and over 1,700 black children going without a formal education in the county, local leaders, such as Rev. L. Francis Griffin, pushed Robert Kennedy, Governor Albertis Harrison, and others to organize some form of temporary free public education. In 1963 the Prince Edward "free schools" started with federal and private support to provide schooling for anyone who wanted to come to them. These schools leased county buses but had to paint over "Public Schools" and opened their operations in Moton High School. In 1964, however, the Supreme Court of the United States in Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County ruled the county's school closing in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.