23 February 2012

Robert Collins Smith. They Closed Their Schools. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.

from Amazon
February is Black History Month, and although March and warmer days are right around the corner, our appreciation of this special designation does not have to come to an end. We can still honor the sacrifices and enormous strides that African Americans have made over the years.

Southside Virginia has the distinction of being a major battleground in the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to being the home of many important leaders, including Vernon Johns, who is considered the father of the movement, a significant battle played out in Prince Edward County during the 1950s and 1960s that affected not only Southside Virginia but also the rest of the United States.

Although I grew up one county south of Prince Edward hearing bits and pieces about what happened between 1959 and 1964, I never really knew the full story. I remember when the building that housed the former all-Black school, Moton High School, opened as the Robert Russa Moton Museum in the late 1990s and I remember my family participating in a walk in Farmville around that time celebrating civil rights, but I did not know the true meaning of why these events happened. Therefore, I decided to read Robert Collins Smith’s They Closed Their Schools in honor of Black History Month.

Barbara Rose Johns. (Photo from Moton Museum)
The short version of a long, fascinating story is this: just sixty years ago, public education in the state of Virginia was segregated. The long-standing myth was that this system, though separate, was equal. The truth, however, was that despite the best intentions and efforts of Moton administrators, teachers, and champions, the experience for Black children was not the same as that of white children. Black children had cramped conditions in their school building that was made only more uncomfortable by inadequate heating systems and roofs. Funding for the education of Black students from the Prince Edward County school board was less than the funding available for white students. Even worse, Black citizens were repeatedly promised better facilities that never materialized. By 1951, students had had enough. Spearheaded by Barbara Rose Johns (precocious sixteen year-old niece of Vernon Johns) and without any adult input, the four hundred-plus student body banded together and marched to downtown Farmville on April 23rd to protest the unequal conditions.

The Moton High School strike, which lasted for two weeks in which students did not return to school, caught the attention of officials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which offered its support under one condition: any suit filed had to be for integrated schools, not simply equal facilities. This case became Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County which, after a series of appeals, was consolidated with four other cases into the Brown v. Board of Education. The pivotal Brown case was tried before the Supreme Court in 1954, which ruled that segregation in public school was unconstitutional and illegal.

Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond. (Photo from Discover Black Heritage)
In white Prince Edward County, none of this was popular – not the strike, not the idea of integration, and certainly not the Supreme Court ruling ordering it. Organizations such as the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties were formed to fight it, and many people truly believed that “separate, but equal” was attainable and necessary. Convinced that integration was another tool of Communism, they genuinely feared anything other than segregation. Therefore in 1959 after years of fighting integration, Prince Edward County school board members decided that if their schools could not be segregated, they would have no public education. For the next five years until 1964, this was the case. Private schools such as the Prince Edward Academy (renamed Fuqua School in 1992) were established for white children, and in some cases even subsidized. Black children were left on their own to create makeshift schools in church basements, to move away from their families to receive schooling elsewhere, or to go without. The implications of this five-year period are far-reaching and undoubtedly still being felt today.

Smith was a journalist for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk who became interested in the Massive Resistance milestone in the 1950s. Although he had the benefit as author to interview the major players soon after the events unfolded, reading his book today definitely feels dated and tedious at times. Still, They Closed Their Schools is an important work that offers many interesting clues to what was going on through the minds of Prince Edward County citizens soon after this dark chapter in history.

If you are interested in learning more about Southside Virginia’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, you have a few options. You can start with Smith’s book first and then try two other recently published books: 
  • Christopher Bonastia. Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • Jill Ogline Titus. Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
Bonastia and Titus have the advantage of over fifty years of reflection and updates.

Teri Kanefield, an author from Sacramento, California, is working on a children's book about Barbara Rose Johns called The Girl from the Tar Paper School that is due out in 2012.

Another book that is probably rich with insight is J. Samuel Williams, Jr.'s Exile Existence: Contributions of Black Churches in Prince Edward County during the Modern Civil Rights Movement, which was self-published in 2011.

If you are in the mood to travel, a trip to the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville would undoubtedly be a unique experience. Even if you cannot make it to the actual building where Johns and her classmates took a stand, the museum’s website is an excellent tool. The Virginia Civil Rights Monument in another

Other useful resource are the National Park Service’s online exhibit, "Brown v. Board: Five Communities That Changed America" and Encyclopedia Virginia's "Moton School Strike and Prince Edward County School Closing" entry.

Finally, a documentary about this period in history is in the works through Mercy Seat Films. "They Closed Our Schools" is still in the production phase, but its website also sheds more light.

No matter the month, it is always worthwhile to acknowledge our astonishing past and to be reminded we we must diligently work to ensure that human and civil rights are protected for all.
Find They Closed Their Schools in the Charlotte County Library catalog.

Have you read They Closed Their Schools? Please share your opinion about the book and this summary.

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