Author: Brian E. Lee

Assistant Professor of History at McNeese State University

Leslie Francis Griffin (1919–1980)

The Reverend Leslie Francis Griffin, who was known as L. Francis Griffin, was a leader of the Black freedom struggle in Prince Edward County. Griffin was born on September 15, 1919, in Norfolk. His family moved to Farmville in 1927. After service in the U.S. Army in World War II (1939–1945), he received a bachelor of divinity degree from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He returned to Farmville in 1949 and succeeded his father as pastor of First Baptist Church. The “Fighting Preacher” helped guide the Black community through its assault against “separate but equal” education and then stood firm against the subsequent white backlash, where county officials closed the public schools for five years (1959–1964) in defiance of a federal court order to desegregate. Prince Edward County–like defiance could have become a model for southern localities looking to circumvent Brown v. Board of Education, but Griffin lent his name to federal lawsuits that helped arrest the school closing movement. Griffin died of congestive heart failure at his home in Farmville on January 18, 1980, and was buried at the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery in Farmville.


Farmville Protests of 1963

The Farmville civil rights demonstrations began late in July 1963, when the Reverend L. Francis Griffin organized a direct-action campaign to, as he told reporters, “protest closed schools, delay in the courts, and segregation in its totality.” Public schools in Prince Edward County and its county seat, Farmville, had been closed since June 1959, when county officials refused to levy taxes to operate schools rather than follow federal court orders to desegregate. The state government had abandoned its policy of Massive Resistance, but Prince Edward County remained steadfast and became the only place in the nation without public education. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Allen v. County School Board of Prince Edward County and later Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County had petitioned the federal judiciary to open the schools, but the case moved glacially through the courts. African Americans in Prince Edward County faced a variety of additional obstacles, such as discriminatory hiring practices and de facto and de jure segregation. The two-month direct action campaign Griffin launched that summer included picketing along Main Street, sit-ins, kneel-ins, try-ins, and economic boycotts. The protests ended in September 1963, after the formation of the Prince Edward Free School Association, a nonprofit organization that established and maintained an integrated school system in Prince Edward County until 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the county to reopen its public schools. The Farmville protests did not end the county’s racial discrimination, but they helped set the community on a path to change.