Interview of Edwilda Allen Issac. Interviewed by George Gilliam, Mason Mills, of The Ground Beneath Our Feet project.

Edwilda Allen Isaac was a student leader in the student strike of 1951 in Prince Edward County, an event that led to Dorothy Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board, one of the five cases decided in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

This interview was taken in 2000 for "Massive Resistance," episode four of "The Ground Beneath Our Feet: Virginia's History Since the Civil War," a production of George H. Gilliam and the Central Virginia Educational Television Corporation. George H. Gilliam is the Producer of the series, William G. Thomas, III the Assistant Producer, and Mason Mills the Director of Photography.

The transcripts represent what was said in the interview to the best of our ability. It is possible that some words, particularly names, have been misspelled. We have made no attempt to correct mistakes in grammar.

Mr. Gilliam: Would you tell me your full name?
Ms. Issac: Edwilda Gustava Allen Isaac.
Mr. Gilliam: Um, You were a student in seventh grade -
Ms. Issac: Eighth grade.
Student Strike
Mr. Gilliam: - eighth grade when you get when the strike came. Tell me about - there had been some talk prior to the strike; Barbara Johns was trying to get people organized. What - can you tell me the story of just how it came off and what happened?
Ms. Issac: Well, first she had contacted the student leaders, those who were presidents of student organizations. And then after she talked it over with them, then she decided that she needed grade level representatives to notify the other kids about how the whole thing was going to take place. And I was friends with her youngest sister, so she had selected me to be the eighth grade rep. And she called us down and told us what was going to happen and told us how it was supposed to proceed and we were supposed to notify our grade level. When the bell rang, we were all supposed to get up and walk out of class and come to the auditorium. So that was our basic signal. I told my father what was going to happen because I needed to get his approval as to whether this was the right thing to do. And I knew I couldn't talk to my mother because of conflict of interest. So she didn't know anything about it, but my father did.
Mr. Gilliam: And the secret was kept?
Ms. Issac: Yep.
Mr. Gilliam: And nobody said anything to anybody?
Ms. Issac: No. This was a big moment and we knew that if anybody knew ahead of time it wouldn't go off as it was planned.
Mr. Gilliam: So, Barbara went to the principal's office and told the principal.
Ms. Issac: No. She didn't go to the principal's office. Another student went out - off campus and called in and told the principal that there were some students causing a disturbance down at the bus station and then he left school to go see about them. And then somebody else rang the bell and then we all went to the auditorium. And all the student leaders were on the stage and she was up there also.
Mr. Gilliam: Now, how many students in your class - in your eighth grade class, had you sort of tipped off as to what was going to happen?
Ms. Issac: Oh, I'm not sure. It might have been - I don't know - fiftyish - I don't know - I've forgotten how many we were.
Mr. Gilliam: But you had told a lot of people that - what was going to happen.
Ms. Issac: Yeah.
Mr. Gilliam: And they kept the secret?
Ms. Issac: Yup.
Mr. Gilliam: Amazing.
Ms. Issac: Well, I guess it was a thing about children against adults so it's easy to keep secrets when you know you've got one up on adults.
Mr. Gilliam: So you went to the auditorium and then what happened?
Ms. Issac: Well, they told us, you know, while we were there, they told us what we were going to do. That the parents had tried to get us a school and they had not been successful and that we were going to protest and we were going to protest by walking down to the School Board and demanding they give us a new school. So there were some posters made and for most of us it was a day out of school so it was like a field trip. So we all walked down to the courthouse to make our demands. I guess they heard we were coming because there were 400 students walking down the sidewalks. So when we got there, they said all of us could not come inside and we had to select some students to go in to talk to the School Board. And I was one of the students who got to go inside. They took us upstairs to the courtroom and the first thing they did was to identify all of us and who our parents were. They had somebody to write it all down so they would know who these people were causing this disturbance. And they were able to do things to some of the parents right away. My mother worked for the School Board so her contract was not renewed. People who lived on other people's farms, they were asked to pay rent or else they had to move and that kind of thing. So they were able to attack the adults that they could attack. The others, I guess, they weren't able to do too much to them. A curious thing happened when I came back here to work. We were supposed to go down to the courthouse to talk about the budget cause we were trying to get the Board of Supervisors to give us some money that they had asked for and they asked how many people wanted to stand up and speak to the Board of Supervisors and I jumped up to speak. And the minute I stood up to start talking, I started crying. And I couldn't figure out why I was crying cause it wasn't an emotional kind of thing. But after I got back home and I relived why this made me cry, I realized that that was the room I was in when I was thirteen and they had taken my mom's name and had fired her and all these things came back and it was like a delayed reaction. When I got back to school the next day and everybody was asking why was I crying about the School Board money and I had to tell them, you know, this is like a delayed reaction forty years later. That all of this had come back. I guess at that time, I wasn't afraid but I guess it came back at that particular time.
Mr. Mills: So, it still means that much to you, I mean like when you think about it?
Ms. Issac: Yeah, I think about children now when there is some crisis and they have counselors that will come and talk to them and try to get them to work this out but nobody ever has gotten- has talked to us. And we carry a lot of unsolved pain and I think any of us that you talk to for any period of time, you either see anger or you see tears. It still hasn't been resolved. When we came back for the fortieth anniversary, we were up at the Moton site and I guess we were up there like three or four hours and we just spent hours talking and crying. It just still hasn't been resolved.
Mr. Gilliam: Now, you were able to graduate from high school?
Ms. Issac: Yes.
Mr. Gilliam: Schools hadn't closed by -
Ms. Issac: No.
Mr. Gilliam: - the time you - What year did you graduate?
Ms. Issac: 1955.
Cause for Protest
Mr. Gilliam: The thing that fascinates me about this story is that in so many other communities, it was the adults that started the litigation. It was the adults that got things started. It was ministers in churches. It was the editor of the black newspaper. It was the black leadership that started it. And here there had been a little bit of activity. Your mother and a few others but they weren't the ones who really got the main action going. It was kids. It was bottom up. Ah -
Ms. Issac: Well, we knew we had inadequate facilities. Our student leaders had the opportunities to go to other schools in the state and they had seen that other schools had libraries and labs, lunchrooms, gyms. And we knew that we had none of those things. Lunch for us was walking across the stage and getting some white or chocolate milk and a cinnamon bun. And if you didn't bring your own lunch, that's what you had for lunch. We had a biology lab. The only person who had the microscope was the teacher and she had the frog and all we all had to crowd around to see her dissect it. We never had the opportunity to touch any of those things. In our music program, the only thing we had was a choir. And I left here to major in music and had never seen any instruments. The only instrument I knew was the piano. But that wasn't a deterrent to the fact that I wanted to be a music teacher. We just knew that we didn't have these things and we wanted them. We had to rely upon our own inner resources to achieve them. So when our student leaders knew that, you know, we knew too we didn't have what everybody else had. Because we had heard that the white high school had a lab, they had a cafeteria, they had a good library. But - and Barbara was the catalyst to - say well, you know, if our parents can't do it, then maybe we should try and do it. And it sounded like a simple project to us. I think what occurred here could never occurred any other time in history. Because - I mean all this was achieved through nonviolence, just peaceful protest. I don't think it could ever happen again. Even after we protested, I mean, the Klu Klux Klan came in and burned crosses and tried to frighten us into what we had done. It was a scary time but we felt committed to what we - to our principles.
Mr. Gilliam: This was twelve years before Birmingham. This was twelve years before Martin Luther King's speech. This was before Martin Luther King or any of the leaders had been out spreading the nonviolence gospel. How did you all -
Ms. Issac: We had Vernon Johns. He - we all knew him. He was - we considered to be a little eccentric but we considered him to be a very brilliant man. And because Barbara was his niece, she had talked to him and, you know, he sort of gave her some motivation, I think. I don't think there was - we were concerned about what was going to happen to us. All we felt was, if we protested that they would listen to us and maybe we'd get our school. And that's essentially what we wanted, was just a new school that had everything that everybody else had. Cause by the time we contacted the NAACP and our attorneys came and said that they could not fight just for the new school; they had to fight for integration. So it just -
Mr. Gilliam: Your fight had been - your original idea had been to try to get equal facilities?
Ms. Issac: That's all we wanted was a new school.
Mr. Gilliam: An equal school?
Ms. Issac: Yep.
Mr. Gilliam: What instruction did anybody give you in nonviolence?
Ms. Issac: None.
Mr. Gilliam: When Barbara Johns was meeting with you as the class rep and when she was in the auditorium, did she say it's very important that we keep our cool? That nobody step out of line? Were there any -
Ms. Issac: I think, children of that day had respect for adults and for authority. It wasn't even an issue. That if we were going down there to make our demands, we would go down there orderly. It wasn't a major issue. The biggest thing that we had done was to defy our teachers by walking out of class and even though they told us to come back, we knew that we were to keep walking and to go in there. And that was the biggest defiant act that we probably did during that time. And the other one was when the principal asked us to go back that we did not go back because we knew we were on a mission.
Mr. Gilliam: Have you ever looked back and thought that if we hadn't done this, what would have happened?
Ms. Issac: We probably would not have had the school. We probably wouldn't have achieved what we had gone down there to achieve. We - I don't think we had any idea how - what an impact this walk out would have been, not only on our community, but in other communities. I think at the time we were only concerned with ourselves. And then after we got the new school, then we had a building; but we still didn't have equipment in it. We went through chemistry with a textbook, nothing else. We still didn't have - we had a band room, but no band. But we felt we had achieved what we had gone for was to get the new building. Hopefully we thought that they would furnish it at another time. But we were - surprised ourselves as to where all of this went. At the time I graduated from high school I was still - in college, I was concerned about the fact that - what was happening to the other children that we left, and when they closed schools, I could not believe that nobody was rising up and doing anything about that. I couldn't believe that they sat quietly and let it go on for years. And since I've been back, I've asked people, you know, how come nobody said anything; and most of the people said, "I had no idea that the schools were going to stay closed that long." They thought it was going to be something temporary. Then when all the other incidents took place in town, I was amazed. I talked to my father a lot to find out what was going on. I couldn't believe what we had started went to that point. So then you have another group of people that were angry.
Mr. Mills: Did uh - were you saying that people were actually angry at you guys too, for possibly -
Ms. Issac: I don't know who they were angry at. They were just angry.
Mr. Gilliam: Angry that somebody stirred it up?
Ms. Issac: I guess. Because if you say something to them, they just say well you know I didn't get to finish school or I had to get a GED. When we had our fortieth anniversary and one of the things that they talked about that they have no high school graduation pictures and they feel bad about those kinds of things. Some people had to leave their families and go live with other family members. So they're angry about the fact that they don't know their brothers and sisters because they were separated from them. Just angry about a number of things. I don't know that they blame anybody in particular. They might. I just haven't heard it.
Mr. Gilliam: We got into this a little bit before we had to change the tapes. So, I wanted to go back and re-ask one thing and that is how the goal shifted. The goal, as it started out, as I understand it was for an equal school, equal facilities, equal teacher pay, equal books and so on. And then the goal -
Ms. Issac: Well, when the attorneys came, they explained it to us that that wasn't what they could fight for. We understood that.
Mr. Gilliam: If you had had equal schools - if the Prince Edward County School Board had provided equal facilities, would the strike have taken place?
Ms. Issac: Probably not. I doubt it because if we had the same thing that everybody else had, there would have been no reason to protest. We had tar paper shacks that had coal stoves in it that had holes burned in them and had coals were popping out and that was a dangerous situation and the whole building could have burned down and kids in it too. We even had classes on a school bus. Class had to hurry up and finish so the bus could roll. I mean we knew that we didn't have what everybody else had. So if we had, there would have been no reason to protest. We had books that were already written in. Never had a new book. I mean even as children you could see that you didn't have what other people had. But probably not. Maybe by then we would have found something else to protest but we would never have protested for that.
Mr. Gilliam: What -
Mr. Mills: I've got to stop one more time.
Mr. Gilliam: Okay.
Mr. Mills: Yeah, would not have thought of that. Even though - even when you were back in school (inaudible).
Mr. Gilliam: I don't want to put words in your mouth and I think you - you've certainly answered the question; but, what I would love to get for editing purposes is about a two sentence explanation of the way the goal shifted. You know, something like our goal originally was just to get equal facilities and once we contacted the NAACP and they came in, they said they couldn't work for that and so the goal became integration. If I ask you a question, can you turn your answer in that direction so it's a two or three sentence piece?
Mr. Mills: And I might ask that you put that down for me, 'cause I'm hearing-
Mr. Gilliam: Oh crackling.
Mr. Mills: And it actually sounds like a messed up microphone. [laughter] I was like, "wait a minute -"
Mr. Gilliam: When your group started planning the strike and the protest, what were you trying to get?
Ms. Issac: We were trying to get a new school. We wanted the same facilities that the white high school students had. But when we contacted the NAACP, they told us that they could not fight for just a new school, that they had to fight for integration; and they explained it to us and we understood why the whole process had to be changed. Um, but then the county decided rather than integrate they would just close the schools. So, that's what happened and the goals were shifted.
Mr. Gilliam: Thank you. That's 10.0. Mason, do you have any questions?
Mr. Mills: Um, well - I mean I've got thousands of questions, because I'm just intrigued by the whole thing. I mean - I'll just ask one and then we'll let you go, but - If you could just look at it now and - I've asked this before, but explaining to someone like me that grew up after all this was done and never even entered my mind, differences or why people would want to shut stuff down and was never even taught the Massive Resistance in - about Farmville or Moton and didn't know anything about it. What's the difference? I mean, how can you - is there any way you can explain to someone like me what it was like for you to go to those kind of schools what you had to do to explain to people, you know hey, we're in this situation and why are we in this situation?
Ms. Issac: Well I think - First of all, you have to grow up with segregation. When you grow up with it you know where you can go and where you can't go. If I wanted to get a hamburger, I had to go to a window and they would hand it out to me. I could never go inside a place and ask for it. If I wanted to ride on the train, I knew that there were two doors. One side where black people went. They went to the same ticket agent to buy tickets but there were two places where you waited to board the train. There was segregated cars to ride in, you never rode in the same car with white people. When I left here to go to college, they had just passed a law that if you were riding out of the state, you rode on an integrated car but that car was always like on the end of the train. So that there was just this one coach that was integrated. The rest of the train was still segregated. I went to school in Wisconsin. So this one integrated car that I was on I would stay on it. I could not leave that particular car. When I got to Cincinnati, they would take that one car and hook it up to the train - another train so that I could continue my trip. My father and mother told me about segregation. There were things that I could not do, places I could not go. So that I pretty much accepted what I could do and what I could not do. I knew that the white school was right across the street from us. I knew I could never go there. I knew where my school was. In fact when I graduated high school, I applied to go to Longwood. And my girlfriend applied also and with two African American students applying to go to a white school, the president of the college said I will not be president here and see black people coming over here; so, he resigned. And I think it's really ironic because my girlfriend and I never had any intentions of going over there. We just had a thrill in filling out applications and we just thought it was a kicker to fill one out for that school too. But they did take the time to write a letter back to us to tell us that we had a black college to go to and that's why - where we should apply. So all along I knew what I could and could not do, even when I went to college. I was one of six African Americans at a white college. It was not only white; it was Catholic too and I was the only Protestant. So I entered into another -
Mr. Gilliam: You're what's known as a two-fer. [laughter]
Ms. Issac: - So, anyway I ran into racism there too. So, I've spent my whole lifetime knowing who I am and what I can do and what I cannot do. But it did not deter me from achieving some goals that I wanted to go. I just had to find out how I knew - I had to know how to go about getting what I needed to get.
Mr. Mills: Did it seem wrong that you were, you know, in this classification or was it just something you accepted?
Ms. Issac: Yeah, I thought it was wrong. Cause, I felt that I was as good as anybody else, but I did not feel like I should be the one to rock the boat about these kinds of things. I spent my time trying to, especially when I was in college, to tell the white girls there about me as a person. That I was just like them, except that I had a designation of race. A white girl was fascinated with black students so she invited us to go to Nebraska and visit her family for Thanksgiving. And when I got there, there was a lines of people on both sides of the street and I asked her father are they were having a parade and he laughed and said you are the parade. They came to see you. So my mother and father taught me never to hate white people because they didn't like me because of my race. They, I guess, gave me the gift of tolerance. So that whenever I walk into a situation where race becomes an issue, I guess I try to convert them to knowing that people of different races have the same wants and needs as anyone else. That it's your loss if you don't know me. And that's pretty much how I - I guess, have functioned. I knew the whole system was wrong and I just felt that if I were patient long enough somebody else would discover it and take care of it.
Mr. Mills: Do you still have that perception now that people are still - How much has it changed since -
Ms. Issac: In Prince Edward?
Mr. Mills: In Prince Edward and around - Yes.
Ms. Issac: I teach at Prince Edward now. And the school is integrated. I think the children accept me for what I am. They have gotten to know me as a person. I've had students to do essays on my favorite African American kind of thing, and they talk about what I have taught them about racism and about people. And I think that the younger generation don't get hung up in that bag as the older generation did. I think things have changed and that people try to get to know you. Some of them do. Some of them don't, but some of them try to get to know you as a person. I think the community has accepted me as a good teacher so that they often ask that their students be put in my classes. When I first came here, they didn't know who I was; but they knew I was a stranger from out of town. So they thoroughly checked me out. But when they found out their children were learning because of my teaching, then they have accepted me as a teacher and I think as a person too.
Mr. Gilliam: You said that you sort of thought you would sit back and wait and let somebody else to solve the problem, yet you marched when you were thirteen.
Ms. Issac: But I think, and like I said, I don't think that I realized what I had done would have any great impact on anything. It was just something that I accepted that I had done. I didn't think any further than what I - at that time. I realize now that it had a great impact on what we had done, but it's just what I did at the time for a reason. I felt it was important and I did it.
Mr. Gilliam: Are you bitter?
Ms. Issac: Am I bitter? No. Not bitter. I get sad sometimes, but I'm not bitter.
Mr. Gilliam: What do you get sad about?
Ms. Issac: About all the things that have happened. I grew up without a mother during my teenage years. I'm sad about that. I was sad about the fact that she lost her job and she had to travel back and forth. I only saw her from Fridays to Sundays. I feel like I have lost in that respect. But I survived. I feel sorry about the things that happened to the kids after me. Knowing that they are sad. I feel sorry for parents who have children and say, well, "I can't help my child because you know I didn't get to go to school so I can't help them." I feel sorry about them because I know they feel sad. But I'm not bitter, no.
Mr. Mills: It's things that are lost that will never be -
Ms. Issac: Right. You can't fix it. It's gone. It's done. Nobody can repair it. You can't bring it back. It's a done deal.
Mr. Gilliam: Well, thank you.
Ms. Issac: You're welcome.

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