Author: Brian J. Daugherity

Association Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University

Desegregation in Public Schools

The desegregation of the public schools in Virginia began on February 2, 1959, and continued through early in the 1970s when the state government’s attempts to resist desegregation ended. During this period, African Americans in Virginia pushed for desegregation primarily by filing lawsuits in federal courts throughout Virginia. This litigation was aimed at achieving court rulings forcing the state of Virginia and its local school districts to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, mandating the desegregation of public schools. State and local officials, however, generally resisted efforts to bring about desegregation and utilized their political power to avoid and then minimize public school desegregation. Virginia’s Indians, meanwhile, went without the benefit of any state-funded public education until 1963, almost a decade after Brown. By the middle of the 1970s, a major goal of the civil rights movement—the formal desegregation of the public schools in Virginia and elsewhere in the South—had been accomplished. But de facto segregation based on school district and attendance boundaries has remained


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.


Green, Charles C. et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia

Charles C. Green et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, was a 1968 United States Supreme Court decision that ordered school districts to abolish dual systems of education for black and white students, placing on them an “affirmative duty” to integrate their schools genuinely. The pressure for such a ruling had mounted in the years since the Court’s landmark decisions in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) and Brown II (1955), which had declared separate schools to be “inherently unequal” but did not define the process by which schools would be desegregated. Virginia officials had responded to Brown with the Massive Resistance movement, in some cases shutting down public schools rather than integrating them. Incremental desegregation occurred when federal courts forced those schools to reopen in 1959, although schools in Prince Edward County did not reopen until 1964. But in New Kent County, school board officials instituted bureaucratic delays while also placing the burden of desegregation on black families through a “freedom of choice” plan. Not until the Supreme Court struck down most “freedom of choice” plans in Green did Virginia school districts implement full desegregation.


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.