In 1959, Virginia’s Prince Edward County closed its public schools rather than obey a court order to desegregate. For five years, black children were left to fend for themselves while the courts decided if the county could continue to deny its citizens public education. Investigating this remarkable and nearly forgotten story of local, state, and federal political confrontation, Christopher Bonastia recounts the test of wills that pitted resolute African Americans against equally steadfast white segregationists in a battle over the future of public education in America.
Beginning in 1951 when black high school students protested unequal facilities and continuing through the return of whites to public schools in the 1970s and 1980s, Bonastia describes the struggle over education during the civil rights era and the human suffering that came with it, as well as the inspiring determination of black residents to see justice served. Artfully exploring the lessons of the Prince Edward saga, Southern Stalemate unearths new insights about the evolution of modern conservatism and the politics of race in America.
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About the Author
Christopher Bonastia is associate professor of sociology at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, as well as associate director of the Lehman Scholars Program and Macaulay Honors College at Lehman College. He is the author of Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs.
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SOUTHERN STALEMATEFive Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia
By CHRISTOPHER BONASTIA
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhite Supremacy and Black Resistance in Prince Edward County and Virginia
THE STUDENT WALKOUT OF 1951 had taken white Prince Edwardians by surprise, even though the underlying grievances that led to the strike had been festering for decades. Blacks were agitating for more equitable treatment in education as early as the 1880s, when they requested that the county hire some Negro teachers; the school board initially denied the request, but bolstered its black teaching ranks beginning in 1883. A 1960 report by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) noted that black PEC families had "always placed a very high value on education," with substantial numbers of black families sending their children to college. Local blacks believed that the two colleges in the county had "contributed to the total awareness in the community of the value of education," though neither the all-male Hampden-Sydney College, founded in 1776, nor Longwood College, incorporated in 1839 as the Farmville Female Seminary, admitted black students.
When T. J. McIlwaine was named schools superintendent in 1918, only one colored school—Farmville No. 2—extended beyond the earliest grades; no transportation was provided. One- or two-room schoolhouses for black children dotted the rest of the county. McIlwaine, who could charitably be described as reticent and nonassertive, remembered that "the widespread feeling was the whites were doing far more already for the colored people than their tax contributions warranted." To augment local funding for new building construction, school improvements, or equipment, blacks often had to raise money themselves. They did the same to pay teachers for lengthened school terms. Seventh and eighth grades were added to the black elementary school in Farmville in the mid-1920s, and early in the next decade tenth and eleventh grades were added after black parents raised $900 to pay teacher salaries. The first brick Negro school opened in 1927, after the school board agreed to build the school if the black community raised $5,000 of the cost, above and beyond standard tax contributions. The Martha E. Forrester Council of Colored Women spearheaded the effort. Though the black community apparently fell substantially short of the $5,000 goal, county voters passed a bond issue in 1926, allocating $35,000 for additions to the white Farmville High School and $30,000 for a new colored school. As the county historian noted, "The people were by no means unanimous in approving the issuance of bonds to provide these new buildings.... No more bitter political battles were fought in the county than in those districts which voted on school bonds.... Opposition centered largely around the increased taxation which would be required."
The belief that fairness required improvements to white schools first proved enduring. The editor and publisher of the Farmville Herald, J. Barrye Wall, asserted the county's commitment to racial fairness in education in a 1955 editorial, noting that the first modern school for whites was not constructed until 1912. "Naturally," Wall explained, "progress in the Negro plants followed that in the white plants, because an overwhelming majority of the taxes were paid by the white citizens." M. Boyd Jones, who became principal of the black high school in 1947, recalled that decision makers in the county "would always talk about the Negro tax contribution being so low." Nevertheless, he argued, "They expected us to raise incomes without improving education. It was like the Egyptians telling the Israelites to make bricks with no straw, to do the impossible."
By 1934, black students could graduate from an eleventh-grade high school, which housed 469 students by fall 1935, though it had been designed to hold a maximum of just 325. Because no bus service was yet available, black children "out in the county ... who wanted a high-school education had to board in Farmville or go untutored past sixth grade." The first freestanding Negro high school opened in 1939, aided by funding from the state and the federal Public Works Administration, which agreed to provide 45 percent of the funding for the new high school and other proposed school building projects. R. R. Moton High School, unlike the white Farmville High, lacked a gymnasium, cafeteria, locker rooms, infirmary, and an auditorium with fixed seats. Even more seriously, the school became overcrowded almost immediately after opening. On the first day of school, 165 students had registered, only 15 short of capacity. C. G. Gordon Moss, a history professor who became dean of Longwood College in September 1960, was one of a handful of white residents who acknowledged the injustice of the county's educational policies during the years of the school closings. In a 1962 speech, he observed that dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, if not before,
it was absolutely obvious that the school facilities for the Negro part of the population were totally inadequate. The buildings were too few, too small in size, and too physically inadequate for any proper educational situation. And the white people of the county knew it. But they refused to do anything about it, or at least, they procrastinated in doing anything about it, and accordingly, it got worse and worse, more impossible, and certainly more and more unbearable from the standpoint of both the Negro children and their parents.
White county leaders presumably expected that the opening of the new black high school in 1939 would allay complaints about meager and unequal educational resources. However, the 1940s would witness the beginnings of a tectonic shift in relations between blacks and whites throughout the nation, particularly in the South. The struggle over schools was just beginning.
In Virginia, the Second World War presented some impediments to civil rights organizing, as important black leaders like Oliver Hill were drafted and African Americans threw their energy into the war effort. Drawing people to meetings in rural areas became more difficult with wartime gas and rubber rationing. At the same time, "the democratic rhetoric of the war galvanized African Americans to demand their first-class citizenship rights and challenge segregation directly. On an individual basis, African Americans increasingly refused to comply with segregated seating on public transportation." One such act of defiance culminated in Morgan v. Virginia (328 U.S. 373), a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia statute mandating segregation in interstate travel. If change on the local level and in the courtroom seemed increasingly within reach, state politics retained a country-club atmosphere, reserved for white men of a certain social class.
In his seminal analysis of Southern politics published in 1949, V. O. Key remarked that "Virginia stands alone as a state in which one Democratic faction consistently commands the support of about three-fourths of those who vote—almost a one-party system within a one-party system.... Of all the American states, Virginia can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy." The oligarchy was headed by Harry Flood Byrd, born in 1887 to an aristocratic family who lost much of their substantial wealth before his birth. Byrd's father, Richard Evelyn Byrd, was a lawyer who had been elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1906 and was Speaker of the House for six years, beginning in 1908. Harry had two younger brothers, Tom and Dick: the former became an affluent farmer and sportsman, while the latter (Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr.) achieved fame as the first explorer to fly over the North and South Poles. At age fifteen, Harry left school to resuscitate the Winchester Evening Star, a struggling newspaper owned by his father. In 1906, the eldest Byrd sibling entered the apple business, eventually becoming the top individual grower in the world. He was elected to the Virginia Senate in 1915, and his ascension to the governorship ten years later began his reign as head of the state's political machine, which had been in operation since 1893 under the direction of U.S. senator Thomas Staples Martin of Charlottesville. Byrd was elected in 1933 to the U.S. Senate, where he served until his retirement in 1965. He died the following year.
At the time Key's book was published, a smaller portion of the potential electorate was voting for governor than in any other Southern state. The Byrd organization could thus nominate its preferred candidate for governor in the Democratic primary—which was tantamount to election—with the support of only 5 to 7 percent of the adult population. "By contrast," Key observed in a much-quoted comparison, "Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy." The poll tax was helpful in suppressing voting, as was a sense that the election of Byrd men was inevitable. A 1957 Washington Post series marveled at the "elusive, almost phantom-like quality" of the Byrd organization. "There is almost no palpable evidence of its existence—no hall or clubhouse such as Tammany [the New York City political machine] maintains, no letterheads, and ... no one even willing to acknowledge leadership in it. Yet, once the top brass sends out 'the word' about a candidate or a policy, the effect on the knife and fork boys, or officeholders, is as magical as if the command had been passed from Mt. Sinai." In Virginia's House of Delegates, only a half dozen of the hundred members were persistent critics of the Byrd machine. In Key's eyes, the Byrd machine owed its longevity "both to competent management and to a restricted electorate." This competent management was coupled with strict fiscal discipline, which dictated that social spending be kept to bare-bones levels. Thus, "while the school system is inadequate it is about as good as the money appropriated will buy."
Virginia politicians, though firmly committed to segregation, were known as being more restrained in their appeals to racism than their counterparts further south. "Rabble-rousing and Negro-baiting capacities, which in Georgia or Mississippi would be a great political asset, simply mark a person as one not to the manner born," Key reported. L. Francis Griffin Jr., known as "Skip," whose father led black Prince Edward's fight for integrated schools, noted that Byrd and some of his Virginia colleagues in Congress "were the sort of gentlemen's voice of the segregationist South." 15 White Virginians took comfort in the belief that their treatment of blacks was more humane, caring, and friendly than occurred elsewhere in the South. They could point with pride to Virginia's status as the Southern state recording the fewest lynchings of blacks in the twentieth century, as well as to the passage in 1928 of an antilynching law proposed by then-governor Byrd. In exchange for this less bloody brand of racism, blacks were expected to know their place. J. Douglas Smith described the rules of racial engagement established by powerful whites:
Perpetually suspicious of democracy and fervently convinced that only the upper orders should govern, white elites in Virginia embraced a concept of managed race relations that emphasized a particularly genteel brand of paternalism. Intent on maintaining order and stability, practitioners of the idea of managed race relations wholeheartedly supported segregation and disenfranchisement but rejected the rigid racial oppression and violence trumpeted elsewhere in the South. Emphasizing civility and their friendship for black Virginians, paternalists promised to provide a modicum of basic services and even encouraged a certain amount of black educational and economic uplift. In return, white elites demanded complete deference and expected blacks to seek redress of their grievances only through channels deemed appropriate by whites.
The surface cordiality between the races and the low level of white-on-black violence likely made the day-to-day life of the average African American in Virginia more tolerable than in a state such as Mississippi. But, as Melvin Patrick Ely reminded, "the very friendliness that could arise between members of the dominant group and the oppressed may have postponed change by encouraging white people to see their social system as less abusive than it was in fact."
Segregation in Virginia often took the form of quiet cruelties. Farmville's Southside Community Hospital, a private nonprofit institution with ninety-seven beds, was the only hospital available to the forty thousand black residents of the nine-county region. Only sixteen beds were set aside for Negro use, and the hospital lacked facilities "for the treatment of severe injury or serious surgery." If a black patient was admitted, the sole black physician in Prince Edward, A. G. Rawlings, was required to turn his patient over to one of the white staff doctors. On one occasion, Rawlings asked to accompany a family friend inside the hospital to provide comfort, as she was hemorrhaging severely and extremely frightened. There was no time to take her to another hospital. Despite the patient's pleas that her doctor accompany her (it was understood that he would not treat her), a nurse at the hospital denied the doctor entrance. According to AFSC's Harry Boyte, a hospital employee told the physician that the woman "had become hysterical after he had left the hospital, and she had found herself bleeding so profusely and in the hands of total strangers." She passed away ten minutes after her admission to the ward.
For all its unspoken rules, segregation "never meant strict physical separation of the races under all circumstances, for the system [did] allow close and intimate relationships." Black men worked closely with white men in construction and other jobs. One journalist observed that Prince Edward's practices of segregation were not as rigid as in the Deep South: "A white taxi driver will take a Negro fare and vice-versa. A Negro can walk into a lunch counter through the front door and order food to take out. The state liquor store is unsegregated." In one of the sharp ironies of segregation, black domestic workers cared for and nursed white children and prepared food for white families, but publicly Jim Crow "protected" whites from close contact with blacks. "Now you know if those black people was in that house preparing their meals and stuff like that, they were drinking out of the same glasses," John Hurt, who was locked out of school at age seven, noted in a 1992 interview. "If I didn't feel I could sit aside a person, I certainly wouldn't want them preparing me no meals to eat. Would you?"
During the 1940s, some prominent public figures in Virginia began to urge reconsideration of state segregation laws as a means of forestalling more jolting federal action. In 1943, Virginius Dabney, the well-respected editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, began to publicly question the wisdom of Jim Crow requirements on streetcars and buses. Though the purpose of the laws "was to keep the races separate," Dabney wrote, "under existing conditions they have the opposite effect, and they are a constant irritant." He explained that "colored passengers who get on crowded cars or buses have to push their way to the rear through a dense mass of white people," rather than standing or sitting wherever space was available. Eight days later, the Dispatch editor insisted that "the best way to provoke bitter race clashes in this region over an indefinite period is for the whites to turn their backs on the legitimate appeals of the Negroes for justice." Dabney's argument flew in the face of frequent white assertions that segregation was the only means of ensuring peaceful and friendly relations between Negroes and whites. No Southern newspaper saw fit to weigh in on his proposals, but Dabney claimed that letters from readers backed his stand by a three-to-one margin. State legislator Armistead Boothe made a similar plea in a 1949 law review article: If Virginia wishes to prevent the "era of chicanery, hatred and violence" that would result from mandated school desegregation," the state "must prove to the federal legislature, and especially to the federal courts, that Virginia intends to ... eliminate various phases of discrimination as fast as public opinion can be convinced that the eliminations should be made." Boothe was not advocating a repeal of school segregation laws. Rather, he called for relaxation of segregation in areas such as transportation and graduate admissions, where few black students were likely to be admitted under normal academic standards, as a means of preserving forms of racial separation that struck closer to the heart of Virginia's caste system.
Excerpted from SOUTHERN STALEMATE by CHRISTOPHER BONASTIA Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction : Why Prince Edward County?
1 White Supremacy and Black Resistance in Prince Edward County and Virginia
2 No Middle Ground : The Rapid Ascent of Massive Resistance
3 Breaking the Basket of Eggs: The Collapse of Massive Resistance
4 “The Doors Was Chained, So I Knew Then”: Educational Options during the Closing Years
5 The Federal Government Confronts the “Lone Pocket of Ludicrous Resistance”
6 “Clean as a Hound’s Tooth”: White Justifications for the School Closings
7 From the Courtroom to the Street: Black Activism in Prince Edward
8 The Grudging Resumption of Public Education
Conclusion : A County ahead of Its Time?