Prince Edward Schools, Virginia - A Historical Retrospective
Prince Edward County Schools
In early 1956, pro-segregation Virginians sought to pass an amendment to the state constitution allowing public funds to go toward private schools. This extreme action was prompted by the Brown v. Board of Education decision just two years earlier. They feared an imminent order to integrate their school systems and did not trust local communities to toe the line on segregation. After all, Arlington County had integrated their schools in January 1956.
Senator Harry F. Byrd was a key political leader behind this massive resistance movement. In September of 1956, he paved the way for the Virginia General Assembly to pass provisions that allowed the governor to close public schools in order to avoid federal integration orders. Another provision established a State Pupil Placement Board in a further effort to exert control over the school system. Segregationists also sought to delay integration by citing the tense, fragile social situation in Prince Edward. Judge Hutcheson presided over the case into 1957, ultimately deciding desegregation had to go into effect. However, he set no timetable for its occurrence.
On June 2, 1959, the segregationist Board of Supervisors closed Prince Edward schools in favor of private, segregated schooling for whites. The county offered up a separate private school system for blacks as a consolation, but most saw it as a bluff and did not believe the closure would last long. However, it became apparent that public schools would remain closed indefinitely. The county School Board resigned in April 1960 in protest over a powerful segregationist group’s attempts to acquire the newly closed public buildings for private, white-only use. The Foundation, formed to protect white interests, was unsuccessful in doing so but raised enough money through aggressive fundraising to form private schools nonetheless.
As the 1960’s rolled on, Prince Edward remained frozen in a stalemate. Against the odds, the Foundation managed to operate a private school system for white children. Though supporters of keeping public schools open had formed a group called the Bush League in 1959, the group collapsed quickly due to social pressure. No other local effort was to be mounted to get the schools up and running again. The Kennedy administration attempted to lend a hand but ended up committing a political gaffe by stating that public schools statewide should have been closed until Prince Edward’s reopened. Segregationists pounced on the statement as an example of heavy-handed federal meddling.
The NAACP continued filing complaints, but the state continued its feet-dragging. Judge Hutcheson, who had previously ruled in favor of eventual desegregation, had retired, hampering the NAACP’s cause further. However, the group opted neither to support nor provide organized education for blacks. Instead, it saw giving in to private education as acquiescing to the dire circumstances in the county.
In mid-1962, Judge Hutcheson’s successor finally ruled in favor of reopening the schools, but the county appealed. Over a year later, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower decision, contending the federal courts could not compel a state or county to run schools. In December 1963, the state Supreme Court also ruled that, though the Virginia Constitution holds the state to operate a school system, the state did not have to open schools in Prince Edward. The Supreme Court was the last stop for the case.
That last stop would finally arrive in 1964. With President Johnson’s explicit support of federal civil rights legislation, that year looked to offer promising possibilities for African-Americans living in Prince Edward County. The NAACP started a blitz of local petitions in late February regarding integration of schools and fairer hiring. Ahead of the Supreme Court case on March 30, litigants filed a brief that requested schools be opened by September. The brief also included a provision to prevent tax credits being used toward attendance at institutions that engaged in racial discrimination.
In late May, the Supreme Court ordered public schools opened and integrated in Prince Edward. Though a Free School had been established in late 1963, most black children had lost out on significant education during their formative years. The Board of Supervisors received the Supreme Court’s mandate reluctantly, and whites were still divided on reopening, but public schools opened for the fall semester. The Court laid down a pro-rights precedent in their ruling that county officials had to levy taxes in order to maintain a public school system free from discrimination.
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Graglia, Lino A. Disaster by Decree: The Supreme Court Decisions on Race and the Schools. London: Cornell University Press, 1976.
Smith, Robert C. They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951-1964. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
Wilkinson III, J. Harvie. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration: 1954-1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.
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