Early Desegregation Efforts
Virginia’s public schools had been segregated racially since their inception in 1870. So, too, were the state’s public colleges and universities. Through local organization and the ballot, black Virginians were able to pressure state and local authorities to provide support for their schools. Following the disfranchisement of black voters in the, however, funding for black schools fell far short of what white schools received, and the discrepancies in salaries for teachers and administrators were stark.
The segregation of public schools went beyond issues of black and white. Members of Virginia’s Indian tribes were also largely excluded from public education. While many tribes established mission schools early in the twentieth century, these schools often only went up to the seventh grade. Meanwhile, many Indian children, whose help was needed at home or in the fields, never made it past elementary school. Public high school was available only to Indians who were willing to attend blacks-only schools, and most refused. They did this in an effort to maintain their cultural identity in the face of of the, which had deemed almost all Indians, for legal purposes, to be black. A number of the Powhatan tribes sent their children to the Bacone School in Oklahoma and to other such facilities, where they could complete high school and go on to earn the equivalent of a community college degree. Public schools were not opened to Virginia Indians until 1963.
The principal black civil rights organization in the first half of the twentieth century was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which sought the desegregation of public education from its inception. The NAACP’s legal team in the 1930s began to challenge these inequalities in education. One early victory occurred in Norfolk in 1940, when the courts agreed that the city had to pay black and white teachers equitably. NAACP lawyers in Virginia continued to employ this strategy of challenging inequalities in numerous other school districts, and the pace of litigation accelerated after the close of World War II (1939–1945).
Brown and Massive Resistance
Early in the 1950s, the Virginia state NAACP joined the national organization (based in New York City) in a legal attack on the constitutionality of segregation itself. The lawsuit Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, filed in 1951 joined four similar NAACP suits filed in other locations around the country before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on the combined cases in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education.
The Brown decision held that school segregation was unconstitutional, but the decision did not explain how quickly nor in what manner desegregation was to be achieved. In May 1955, the Supreme Court issued its implementation guidelines in a decision generally referred to as Brown II. In this ruling the Supreme Court chose not to set a deadline for the completion of desegregation and ordered the lower federal courts to oversee and manage the pace of desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” an ambiguous phrase that left room for a variety of interpretations of the meaning of “deliberate speed.” With little support from U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower or the U.S. Congress, the fight for bringing about public school desegregation fell mostly on the shoulders of African Americans and civil rights organizations.
Southern whites generally opposed school desegregation and southern public officials fought the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education fiercely. Newly created white segregationist organizations, such as the, the leading segregationist organization in Virginia, encouraged white resistance. Between 1954 and 1959, state officials evaded school desegregation by arguing against the implementation of Brown in court cases (generally filed by the NAACP) and by passing legislation aimed at making the school desegregation process more cumbersome and difficult through a policy known as .
Desegregation began in Virginia on February 2, 1959, after a nearly three-year battle in the federal courts that had started in the spring of 1956. During this legal struggle the federal courts overturned many of Virginia’s antidesegregation laws and eventually ordered the admittance of small numbers of African American students into formerly all-white schools in several locations around the state.
Following this initial school desegregation, public officials in Virginia worked to minimize the amount of desegregation that would take place in the state’s public schools thereafter. Black students who sought to transfer into white schools were forced to go through a complex selection process, and the majority of applicants were rejected. At the same time, state investigative committees attempted to reduce the influence of the NAACP in Virginia, and sought to make it more difficult for the organization to file additional school desegregation lawsuits in the state. As a result of these and other policies, school desegregation in Virginia proceeded at a snail’s pace. As late as 1965, fewer than 12,000 of the approximately 235,000 black students in Virginia went to desegregated schools.
The End of Massive Resistance
The pace of school desegregation increased as the decade wore on. One factor was that the federal government placed greater pressure on the state to integrate its schools. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare used portions of theto threaten southern localities with the loss of federal funding if they did not integrate their schools. Additionally, the Justice Department became involved in lawsuits against intransigent school boards.
Starting in 1968, a series of three U.S. Supreme Court decisions increased the pace of school desegregation even more. The first case,., resulted in the end of so-called “freedom of choice” plans that shifted the burden of integration from African American students directly onto school boards. In 1969, a follow-up ruling based on a desegregation case in Mississippi increased pressure on the South to integrate its schools. Finally, in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, which legitimized busing as a means of integrating schools and mandated that southern school districts immediately move to comply with the court’s mandates starting with Brown in 1954.
In January 1972, federal district court judge Robert R. Merhige Jr., who had previously ruled that Richmond schools desegregate via busing, ordered the integration of the Richmond school system with the systems of the surrounding, largely white counties of Henrico and Chesterfield to facilitate integration. The ruling sparked a massive backlash, with the Richmond Times-Dispatch calling it “the pernicious gibberish” of “social engineers” and protests in Richmond and Washington, D.C., from white parents and students. Merhige and his family received a barrage of hate mail and death threats. On June 5, 1972, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Merhige’s decision, ruling that he did not have the authority to compel localities to merge to facilitate school desegregation, a decision that was ultimately upheld by the U.S Supreme Court.
By the early 1970s, localities’ formal opposition to school desegregation had ended. As a result of court decisions and the growing role of the federal government in the desegregation process, large numbers of African American students entered formerly white schools and vice versa. In many cases, compliance was achieved by eliminating the racial composition of schools and simply enrolling students into the schools closest to their homes. 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. A 2020 report by Virginia Commonwealth University and Penn State found that school segregation by race and income was deepening in Virginia and that Central Virginia, including the Richmond metro area, reported “severe school segregation.”