Protest Sign at Robert Russa Moton High School

Moton School Strike and Prince Edward County School Closings

On April 23, 1951, students at Robert Russa Moton High School in the town of Farmville, in Prince Edward County, walked out of school to protest the conditions of their education, which they claimed were vastly inferior to those enjoyed by white students at nearby Farmville High School. The strike, led by student Barbara Johns, is considered by many historians to signal the start of the desegregation movement in America and resulted in a court case that was later bundled with other, similar cases into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown by mandating public-school desegregation, and Virginia state leaders responded with an official policy of Massive Resistance. When, on January 19, 1959, both a federal and a state court simultaneously ruled the state's actions unconstitutional, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors closed its public schools rather than integrate them. They stayed shuttered for five years. Another U.S. Supreme Court decision—Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward—finally forced the county's schools to reopen in 1964. MORE...

 

Barbara Johns and the Student Strike

Sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns—niece of Vernon Johns, the firebrand preacher who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama—organized the walkout. She was motivated less by her uncle's personality than by conditions at Moton High School, named for the Virginia-born educator Robert Russa Moton and the first high school for black students in Prince Edward County. Built in 1939 to accommodate 180 students, the school had no gymnasium, no cafeteria, no science laboratories, and no athletic field. A decade later, the county constructed several freestanding buildings, made of plywood and tar paper, to accommodate a student population of more than 400. The buildings had no plumbing and were heated by wooden stoves. As Johns wrote years later, "I was unhappy with the school facility and its inadequacies … it wasn't fair that we had such a poor facility, equipment, etc., when our white counterparts enjoyed science laboratories, a huge facility, separate gym dept. etc."

Johns and several other students decided to walk out of the school and to return only if and when the school board promised a new building. New facilities, not the desegregation of those facilities, were the group's initial objective. Shortly after eleven o'clock on the morning of April 23, 1951, the students called an assembly without the knowledge of the school's principal. Johns detailed the group's grievances, and its plan was greeted with overwhelming student support. For the remainder of the day, students picketed the school, both inside and outside, with placards proclaiming, "We want a new school or none at all" and "Down with tar-paper shacks." The following day, student leaders walked to the Farmville courthouse, where they met with school superintendent T. J. McIlwaine, who told them nothing could be done until they returned to classes. The students refused to do so until May 7, and in the interim, the ensuing events moved beyond their original intentions.

Attacking "Separate But Equal"

After receiving a call from the striking students, two lawyers for the Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people (NAACP), Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson III, arrived in Prince Edward County on April 25, 1951. The national NAACP had recently shifted its strategy of challenging unequal facilities to a broader attack on the concept of "separate but equal." The doctrine was originally set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a case that established the constitutionality of separate facilities for blacks and whites so long as they were equal. The NAACP now argued that segregation itself was unequal and had to be dismantled if black citizens were to obtain an equally good education. At a mass meeting in the school auditorium on April 26, 1951, Virginia NAACP Executive Secretary Lester Banks informed parents and students of the organization's willingness to take on a legal case to end segregation. There was little objection.

L. Francis Griffin, minister of the black First Baptist Church in Farmville, called another meeting for May 3, 1951, at his church. In a mailing, he told potential attendees: "REMEMBER. The eyes of the world are on us. The intelligent support we give our cause will serve as a stimulant for the cause of free people everywhere." At the meeting, however, former Moton principal J. B. Pervall spoke persuasively about the justice of equality and the simultaneous necessity of segregation. For her part, Johns reminded the audience of the tar paper shacks and, in the words of scholars Gill Robinson Hickman and Richard A. Couto, "challeng[ed] Pervall with unmistakable metaphors of white oppression and black accommodation to it": "Don't let Mr. Charlie, Mr. Tommy, or Mr. Pervall stop you from backing us."

On May 23, Hill and Robinson filed suit to end segregation in the county schools. The case, Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was bundled with cases from South Carolina, Delaware, Kansas, and the District of Columbia into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled on the case, presenting the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous decision to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson: "We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The payoff for the black students of Farmville was complicated by numerous factors, however, and gains were not immediate. By 1953, the black students of Moton High School were able to move into a new school—a well-equipped structure equal in facilities to the white high school. But while the student strike helped achieve a lasting effect on equality of education in America, Prince Edward County took extreme measures in 1959 to protest desegregation, measures that prevented black students from receiving access to formal education for five years.

Massive Resistance and the Closing of the Schools

Under the leadership of U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., Virginia chose to obstruct the Brown v. Board of Education decision by enacting a policy of Massive Resistance. Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closed public schools in Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk in the autumn of 1958 rather than integrate them, but two court decisions on January 19, 1959—one from a federal court, the other from the state supreme court—both overturned the Massive Resistance laws and demanded that the schools be reopened.

Prince Edward County officials continued to defy the court orders, however. On May 9, 1955, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals set September 1 as a deadline for integration. On June 26, the county board of supervisors voted instead to cut off revenues to the public schools. Encouraged by segregationists from across the state and the South, Prince Edward was the only locality in the nation to take such a step. The schools did not open on September 10 as scheduled and remained closed for the next five years.

While white students quickly moved into Prince Edward Academy—a new private school supported by state-approved tuition grants and donations from ardent segregationists—black students were left without any educational facilities. Some local churches provided a rudimentary substitute for the local schools, and some black students attended classes in nearby counties or, with the aid of the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee, relocated. Most black students, however, and especially children who were too young to move away from home, were denied access to any formal education. Similarly, most black teachers lost their jobs, forcing many to leave the community.

Legal wrangling continued between lawyers for Prince Edward County and the NAACP from 1959 until 1964. But as the schools remained closed into the 1960s, they began to attract national attention. In December 1962 the U.S. Justice Department filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the black students denied education in Prince Edward County. U.S. president John F. Kennedy specifically mentioned the Prince Edward County case in a civil rights address to the U.S. Congress in February 1963. And at a centennial celebration for the Emancipation Proclamation on March 18, 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy noted that "the only places on earth not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia."

Nearly 2,000 black students of Prince Edward County, mostly unschooled for four years, were invited to return to formal classes on September 16, 1963, through the assistance of the new, privately organized Prince Edward Free School Association, which leased three of the closed public school facilities for one year with the support of the Kennedy administration and private funds. During the 1963–1964 school year, about 1,500 students (including four white children) attended the Free School.

Finally, on May 25, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward that the county had violated the students' right to an education and ordered that the schools be reopened. Justice Hugo Black delivered the majority opinion for the court: "The time for mere 'deliberate speed' has run out, and that phrase can no longer justify denying these Prince Edward County school children their constitutional rights to an education equal to that afforded by the public schools in the other parts of Virginia." This landmark decision made formal education accessible again, though it could do little to recoup the loss of years of educational opportunities for so many. On September 8, 1964, about 1,500 students, all but eight of whom were black, returned to classes in the Prince Edward County public schools for the first time in five years. The faculty consisted of sixty-nine black teachers and nine white teachers.

Legacy of Prince Edward County School Closings

The students in Prince Edward County public schools remained mostly African American for the rest of the 1960s. In 1971, white enrollment made up about 5 percent of the school. In 1972, James Anderson became school superintendent, and for more than twenty years his policies emphasized integration. By early in the twenty-first century, the student population in Prince Edward County was about 60 percent black and 40 percent white.

Meanwhile, Robert Russa Moton High School opened as the Robert R. Moton Museum on April 23, 2001, the fiftieth anniversary of the school strike. The museum's focus is civil rights and education. In June 2003, Prince Edward County held a symbolic graduation ceremony for the "lost generation"—those denied education between 1959 and 1964—at which time the state of Virginia apologized for the school closings and established a scholarship fund. Prince Edward County and the Moton School Strike are also featured on the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, dedicated on July 21, 2008. Also known as the Capitol Square Civil Rights Memorial, the marker recognizes and celebrates Barbara Johns, her fellow students, their parents, community leaders, and their civil rights attorneys. 

Time Line

  • May 18, 1896 - The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" public accommodations are constitutional. The decision provides the legal basis for Jim Crow laws and the tradition of strict segregation. It, however, also provides an opening for African Americans to demand equal facilities and opportunities.
  • 1930–1939 - High school for black students in Prince Edward County consists of one year added onto elementary school. Prior to 1930, the county offered black students nothing beyond an elementary education.
  • 1939 - Robert Russa Moton High School, named for the Virginia-born educator and built with Public Works Administration funding, opens for black students in Prince Edward County. It is one of only twelve black high schools in rural Virginia.
  • 1948 - To alleviate overcrowding in classrooms, tar-paper buildings are constructed at the all-black Moton High School in Prince Edward County.
  • 1950 - Enrollment at the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County reaches 477 students, far exceeding the school’s capacity of 180.
  • April 23, 1951 - Under the leadership of Barbara Johns, fellow students at the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in the town of Farmville in Prince Edward County walk out of their school to protest the unequal conditions of their education as compared to those of the white students in nearby Farmville High School.
  • April 25, 1951 - Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson, lawyers for the NAACP, arrive in Prince Edward County to help the students of Robert Russa Moton High School, who have gone on strike.
  • April 26, 1951 - Virginia NAACP Executive Secretary Lester Banks meets with students of the all-black Robert Russa Moton School and their parents, telling them that the NAACP is willing to take on their case in an attempt to end segregation. Three days earlier, the students had walked out of school in protest of unequal conditions.
  • May 7, 1951 - After leaving school two weeks earlier in protest of unequal conditions, students at the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School return to class.
  • May 23, 1951 - The NAACP files the suit Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of segregated education in Prince Edward County schools on behalf of black students and their parents.
  • March 7, 1952 - The U.S. District Court rules against the students of Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, upholding the constitutionality of segregated public schools, but orders that the black schools be made physically equal to the white schools.
  • December 1952 - U.S. Supreme Court hearings begin in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which is actually five cases from across the country bundled together including the Virginia case of Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County.
  • 1953 - To thwart school desegregation court cases, Prince Edward County constructs a new Moton High School in an effort to equalize school facilities for black and white students.
  • May 17, 1954 - The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, but fails to explain how quickly and in what manner desegregation is to be achieved. The decision leads to the Massive Resistance movement in Virginia.
  • May 31, 1955 - The U.S. Supreme Court issues a vague ruling outlining the implementation of desegregation to occur "with all deliberate speed," a ruling now commonly known as Brown II.
  • July 1955 - The U.S. Supreme Court remands the Prince Edward case to end segregation in the public schools to a special three-judge District Court panel. The panel calls for the county to begin the "adjustment and re-arrangement" necessary to end segregation, but does not set a firm date.
  • February 25, 1956 - U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd calls for a strategy of "Massive Resistance" to oppose the integration of public schools in Virginia.
  • August 27, 1956 - Virginia governor Thomas B. Stanley announces a package of Massive Resistance legislation that will become known as the Stanley Plan. Among other things, the plan gives the governor the power to close any schools facing a federal desegregation order.
  • November 1957 - The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals orders integration of the Prince Edward County Schools "without further delay." But the Prince Edward County School Board wins a stay of this order pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which turns down the appeal and returns the case to District Judge Sterling Hutcheson to set a precise timetable.
  • 1958 - District Judge Sterling Hutcheson rules that "all deliberate speed" means Prince Edward County can delay public school integration until 1965.
  • September 15–27, 1958 - Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closes schools in Charlottesville, Front Royal, and Norfolk, and threatens to close others if they attempt to desegregate.
  • January 19, 1959 - Both the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court overturn the decision of Virginia governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. to close schools in Front Royal, Charlottesville, and Norfolk.
  • May 5, 1959 - The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturns Judge Sterling Hutcheson’s ruling in the case of segregated schools in Prince Edward County and orders Prince Edward to integrate its schools by September 1, 1959. NAACP and Prince Edward County lawyers will continue to fight in court over desegregation of the schools for the next five years.
  • June 26, 1959 - After eight years of court cases and delays related to school desegregation, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors votes not to fund public schools in the 1959–1960 school year.
  • September 10, 1959 - Public schools close in Prince Edward County. Prince Edward Academy opens for white students.
  • 1960 - The Quaker-oriented American Friends Service Committee begins efforts to send black students denied education in Prince Edward County out of county for their education.
  • March 28, 1962 - Martin Luther King Jr. visits Prince Edward County.
  • December 1962 - The U.S. Department of Justice files a friend of the court brief on behalf of the NAACP in their appeal of the closing of the Prince Edward County schools.
  • February 28, 1963 - U.S. president John F. Kennedy mentions the Prince Edward County school closings in a civil rights address to the U.S. Congress.
  • March 18, 1963 - U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy says during a speech: "the only places on earth not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia."
  • September 16, 1963 - The 1,500 black students of Prince Edward County, mostly unschooled for four years, are invited to return to formal classes through the assistance of the new, privately organized Prince Edward Free School Association, which leases four of the closed public school facilities for one year with the support of federal officials and private funds.
  • May 25, 1964 - After Prince Edward County's public schools have been closed for the previous five years, the U.S. Supreme Court in Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County rules that the county has violated the students' right to an education and orders the Prince Edward County schools to reopen.
  • September 8, 1964 - About 1,500 students, all but eight black, attend classes in the Prince Edward County public schools for the first time in five years.
  • August 31, 1998 - Robert Russa Moton High School is placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. secretary of the interior, the highest level of historical recognition offered by the federal government.
  • April 23, 2001 - The Robert Russa Moton Museum for the study of civil rights in education opens in the former Moton High School on the fiftieth anniversary of the school strike for equal facilities for black students in Prince Edward County.
  • June 15, 2003 - Prince Edward County holds a symbolic graduation ceremony for the "lost generation"—those denied education when the schools were closed to resist integration between 1959 and 1964.
  • July 21, 2008 - The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial is dedicated in Capitol Square in Richmond. One side of the four-sided monument recognizes Barbara Johns and her fellow students, their parents, community leaders, and civil rights attorneys.
Further Reading
Ely, James. The Crisis of Conservative Virginia: The Byrd Organization and the Politics of Massive Resistance. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Mundy, Liza. "Making Up For Lost Time." The Washington Post Magazine, November 5, 2006.
Smith, R. C. "Prince Edward County: Revisited and Revitalized." Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter 1997): 1–27.
Smith, R.C. They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951–1964. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
Stokes, John, and Lois Wolfe, with Herman Viola. Students on Strike: Growing up African American in the Segregated South. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Heinemann, R. L. Moton School Strike and Prince Edward County School Closings. (2014, January 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Moton_School_Strike_and_Prince_Edward_County_School_Closings.

  • MLA Citation:

    Heinemann, Ronald L. "Moton School Strike and Prince Edward County School Closings." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Jan. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 3, 2009 | Last modified: January 21, 2014


Contributed by Ronald L. Heinemann, a professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College.