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Southern Black Women in the Modern Civil Rights Movement
By Bruce A. Glasrud, Merline Pitre
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2013 Texas A&M University Press
All rights reserved.
"A Tremendous Job To Be Done"
African American Women in the Virginia Civil Rights Movement
Caroline S. Emmons
The names of Irene Morgan and Barbara Johns are unfamiliar to many students of the civil rights movement. Because historians have focused on more visible male leaders and on a handful of pivotal battlegrounds in the South, these women, like so many others who played important roles in the movement, have been sidelined. As a consequence, few students of the movement understand how African American activism developed and intensified in the mid-twentieth century. In response, historians of the movement increasingly argue that, rather than examine this complex and diffuse movement from the top down (as studies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference tend to do), they can better understand it by looking at it from multiple perspectives.
Many civil rights studies also have distorted the timeline of the movement. Early studies in particular promoted the years 1954 and 1968 as its bookends. Pivotal events certainly occurred during that period, but such an emphasis seems to suggest that the Montgomery Bus Boycott sprang out of a vacuum. Furthermore, this division of history into periods suggests that the movement ended with King's assassination. Such assumptions might be convenient for the purposes of historical organization, but they do not reflect reality. When the movement began and when (or if) it ended are issues that engender ongoing messy, contentious debate.
Given these problems with historical presentations of the civil rights movement, it is not surprising that Irene Morgan's and Barbara Johns's names are unfamiliar to many. Morgan's act of resistance took place in 1944 and Johns's in 1951, placing them well ahead of the traditional "beginning" of the movement. In addition, both are women and neither was active in existing civil rights organizations. Their challenge to Jim Crow was initiated as a personal act of courage. That might make them more remarkable, but it also makes them more likely to be forgotten.
To complicate matters further, Morgan's and Johns's civil rights movement began in Virginia, a state not typically seen as pivotal in the struggle from the mid-1950s onward for African American political and social equality. Thurgood Marshall and others noted that, as an Upper South state, Virginia was judged more likely than the Deep South to be relatively moderate. The doctrine of Massive Resistance was first developed in Richmond, but the state did not experience the violence and terrorism that marked civil rights protests in the Deep South. White Virginians worked to preserve the racial status quo but discouraged overt violence as a means of doing so. Proud of Virginia's "genteel" image, white politicians in Virginia were committed to protecting Jim Crow but recoiled from the tactics of figures such as Bull Connor.
African American women in Virginia played important roles in the challenge to segregation in public transportation and education. This is not especially surprising. Like white women, they often were excluded from political roles during the mid-twentieth century. Black women were very dependent on public transportation. And like white mothers, they were concerned about the education of their children.
In challenging Jim Crow practices on public transportation, black women in Virginia played critical, but overlooked, roles. In 1940, for example, more than a decade before Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, Pauli Murray and Adelene McBean were arrested in Petersburg, Virginia. The two women were en route from New York to North Carolina when, as their bus drove through central Virginia south of Richmond, they were instructed to move to the rear. McBean, never having traveled in the South, refused to do so, and the women were jailed over the weekend. NAACP leaders in Petersburg contacted Charles Houston of the NAACP legal office, who arranged local representation for them. More than two hundred fifty people, black and white, came to the courtroom to watch a most unusual spectacle, two young African American women defying Jim Crow conventions. They were found guilty of disorderly conduct and public disturbance. When they lost their subsequent appeal, the women refused bail and went to jail—an extraordinarily courageous action that presaged future civil rights leaders' strategies.
In 1944, Irene Morgan was arrested while traveling from Gloucester, Virginia, to Baltimore. When she refused to give up her seat and physically resisted being removed from the bus, she was jailed. While being held, Morgan called out the window to a passing African American child, who told a local black minister of her arrest. He in turn contacted Morgan's mother to let her know what had happened. The Gloucester courtroom where Morgan was tried bore the seal of the Ku Klux Klan on the door. Morgan was represented by NAACP-affiliated attorney Spottswood Robinson, and with his encouragement, she refused to plead guilty. With fellow NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie, Robinson argued that Virginia segregation laws interfered with interstate commerce. Eventually they took the case on appeal to the US Supreme Court. In a 6-1 vote, the court overturned Morgan's conviction.
The Morgan case is especially significant because the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional led to a change in Interstate Commerce Commission policy. In 1947, members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist civil rights group based in New York, embarked on a Journey of Reconciliation throughout the Upper South in which riders would test the ICC policy. Of course this strategy was employed even more famously by members of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1961, when they organized Freedom Rides throughout the Upper and Lower South. Although Morgan's name is not well known among students of the civil rights movement, her bold and lonely action in 1944 set a number of important events in motion.
Education was the focus of the earliest civil rights battle. Black women were underrepresented in this field, but they would be at the forefront of the struggle to end school segregation. In Virginia they had long been outspoken critics of the substandard educational facilities provided for their children. Groups such as the Martha E. Forrester Council of Women in Prince Edward County, Virginia, had worked for decades to establish a public high school for African American students. The women in the council—schoolteachers, homemakers, and clubwomen—were committed to the program of racial uplift popular among middle-class African Americans. The council is not even a footnote in most studies of Brown v. Board of Education, but (as will be discussed later in this essay) the activism of these women had effects far beyond what even they probably imagined.
The NAACP began its attack on segregated education by challenging segregation in graduate and professional schools and pay inequities between white and black teachers. In 1935, NAACP lawyer Charles Houston met with African American educators to discuss plans to challenge segregation in graduate education at the University of Virginia. Alice Jackson wanted to be considered as a plaintiff in the planned case. A graduate of historically black Virginia Union University, Jackson had enrolled in the graduate program at Smith College. The expense of attending Smith became prohibitive for Jackson, however, and the reduced cost of attending the University of Virginia was appealing. As a consequence, in 1935, Jackson applied to the University of Virginia. The NAACP offered quiet support, but major newspapers in the state, especially the Richmond Times-Dispatch, were immediately critical, and the university rejected her application without providing a reason. When it became apparent that Jackson's work at Smith had not been especially strong, the NAACP backed away from its earlier encouragement. In 1936 the Virginia Assembly established a scholarship fund for black students to pursue graduate work out of state, and Jackson continued her studies at Columbia.
While efforts to desegregate graduate schools proceeded, the NAACP legal team also began challenging teacher-pay inequities. Houston and Marshall believed that such challenges were best mounted first in the Upper South, and the first successful suit originated in Maryland. In 1938 the NAACP took up the case of Aline Black, a schoolteacher in Norfolk, with Thurgood Marshall heading up her legal team. African American teachers in Norfolk received a $699 minimum salary and a maximum of $1105; white teachers were paid $970 minimum and $1900 maximum. In a strategy frequently used by Southern school boards to prevent salary challenges, Black's contract was not renewed and the NAACP was forced to drop her case.
Beginning in the 1930s, NAACP lawyers pursued a policy of forcing Southern K-12 school districts to meet the standard set in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson, which said that separate but equal was constitutionally permissible. Of course, black and white schools in the South were not equal in facilities. This strategy put pressure on white politicians in the South, but it was expensive and seemed likely to exhaust NAACP resources before it could produce meaningful change. Consequently, in the late 1940s, NAACP lawyers began a direct legal challenge of the constitutionality of segregated education.
For decades, blacks in Prince Edward County had sought to secure better educational opportunities for their children. And then, in the 1930s, African American students initiated a challenge of their own. The unusual role played by black students in the lawsuit and the county's extreme reaction to the decision—closing the entire public school system for an astonishing five years—have drawn historians, journalists, documentarians, educators, and others to this story. In fact, most studies of the impact of the Brown decision in the South have focused on Prince Edward County.
Observers characteristically have overlooked the role of black women in the struggle for educational equality in Prince Edward County. Often the women worked behind the scenes, without fanfare, without dramatic public presentations. But through at least two generations, their work profoundly shaped the contours of the Prince Edward story. The efforts of the Martha E. Forrester Council of Women to secure better school facilities for black children was particularly important. In 1927 the first Robert R. Moton School was built for African American students in Farmville, Prince Edward County, but its facilities were quickly overwhelmed by large enrollments. The school was built to hold 325 students, but within a few years 469 were enrolled, forcing students to attend in shifts. In 1939, following further demands for improved conditions, the Robert R. Moton High School was built across the street. But this facility, too, was rapidly overcrowded.
In addition to lobbying for new and improved school buildings, the council worked diligently to address shortfalls in materials and equipment, which were common in African American schools during the Jim Crow era. The council helped furnish the school auditorium, paying some of the cost of a piano, helping purchase school supplies, and donating candy for holiday celebrations. Despite the efforts of the council and other African American organizations, however, black schools in Prince Edward County, as in most of the South, lagged far behind those of whites. Blacks, disproportionately poor and mostly disenfranchised, had to bear a double tax burden: supporting white schools to which their children were not admitted and finding the means to support chronically underfunded black schools. But no matter how hard African Americans worked to bring their schools up to the level of white schools, it was simply too expensive without aid from federal and state governments. Of course these inequities led to the NAACP legal campaign to end discriminatory practices.
The moment that black women in Prince Edward County united in an effort to secure better facilities, the NAACP lawyers chose that county for an important commitment of resources. In response the white power structure, swearing absolute opposition to the efforts of the black women and the NAACP, initiated what would be known as Massive Resistance. The confrontation was initiated in the spring of 1951 by sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns, a student at Moton High School who became fed up with its inadequate and overcrowded conditions. Angered by the contrast with the newly built white school less than a mile from Moton, in a remarkable act of self-assertion, Johns persuaded fellow students to join her in a student strike of Moton High School. She and some of her fellow students marched on the Prince Edward County Courthouse, where they demanded that something be done about the discrepancy.
When white school officials, taken aback by this demand, began a program of intimidation against the students' parents, Johns contacted NAACP-affiliated attorneys Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson. The NAACP had not considered Prince Edward County a likely focal point for legal action, but the attorneys who visited Farmville were astonished by the broad support for the students' actions expressed by parents and others in the African American community. Consequently, when the local black community agreed to accept the NAACP's new focus on desegregation rather than equalization of school facilities, the organization took on the Prince Edward County case. Ultimately it became one of five suits heard by the US Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education. Johns, however, paid a price for her victory. She began receiving death threats and was sent away for her safety. She went to live with her uncle Vernon Johns, in Montgomery, Alabama. (As pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Johns was well known for his fiery denunciations of Jim Crow. Eventually the church leaders asked him to leave Dexter because of his confrontational style. Then, seeking a more mild-tempered replacement, they hired young Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Despite the excitement generated by the Brown decision, Prince Edward County became the site of the most significant application of Massive Resistance in the Upper South and arguably in the entire South. In 1959, after repeatedly resisting the Supreme Court order, Prince Edward County officials were ordered to desegregate without further delay. Rather than comply, they cut off all funding for local schools, shutting down the entire school system. Incredible as it seems, no public schools operated in Prince Edward County for five years. The courageous actions of a sixteen-year-old girl had reverberated far beyond what she could have imagined.
During this shutout, African American women played important roles in the effort to provide educational opportunities for the black children of Prince Edward County. The American Friends Service Committee, in particular, was active in placing Prince Edward County schoolchildren in homes in the North and West so that they could attend school. The Martha E. Forrester Council of Women served as a means by which black women in Prince Edward County could assert their demands for better educational opportunities. And black women from outside the county also lent support.
Excerpted from Southern Black Women in the Modern Civil Rights Movement by Bruce A. Glasrud, Merline Pitre. Copyright © 2013 Texas A&M University Press. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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