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.


By 1960, African Americans comprised two-fifths of the population of Prince Edward County, yet the county had no Black elected representatives. Blacks earned less than half as much as whites, and many lived in poverty. Professional employment was virtually closed to Black workers. Law and tradition barred Blacks from movie theaters, country clubs, and lunch counters; dictated racially segregated entrances and waiting areas in public accommodations; and proscribed social interactions to reinforce racial hierarchy.

Farmville Students Protest School Closings

White segregationists were steadfast about maintaining racial divides in the classroom. When a federal appeals court ordered the county to desegregate its all-white high school by September 1959, white leaders established a segregated private school system for white children and the county board of supervisors refused to allocate funds to operate public schools. Hundreds of Black children boarded with family, friends, and strangers outside the county to obtain an education, but hundreds more remained home without access to formal schooling. The NAACP challenged the school closings in federal court in the case Allen v. School Board of Prince Edward County and later Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County, but state and county attorneys used every tactic available to slow the case’s progress. The NAACP became captive to the judicial system’s deliberate pace, and as years passed, Black education continued to erode.The school closings had not elicited an organized direct-action campaign earlier because the Black community had conformed to the NAACP’s strategy of fighting inequality through litigation. By the spring of 1963, however, that approach appeared antiquated. Direct-action campaigns, like those in Birmingham and Danville, had changed the landscape of the civil rights movement: the protests, and the police brutality that accompanied them, had stirred the conscience of the Black community. The Reverend L. Francis Griffin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmville and president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, sought to capitalize on the “Negro revolution” to effect racial progress. Late in June, Griffin convened a special meeting of the leaders of the Virginia State Conference in which they adopted a new approach.

Farmville Teenagers

Under the new program of action, local branches of the NAACP were instructed to initiate selective buying campaigns, to petition their municipal government to desegregate, and, if their grievances were not addressed, to launch “freedom demonstrations.” Griffin sought to implement the program of action in Prince Edward County, but mobilizing the Black community proved difficult: the fear of reprisal limited the activism of adults. Griffin, however, found a cadre of young people eager to participate in the broader civil rights revolution in order to bring change to their community. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an independent organization of college students skilled in nonviolent protest tactics, trained the teenage volunteers, while NAACP attorneys advised them on how to respond to resistance from law enforcement officials.

Demonstrations Begin

The campaign initially targeted Farmville’s business district, the principal shopping center for Prince Edward and five surrounding counties. On Thursday, July 25, 1963, a group of seventy picketers, carrying homemade signs protesting segregation and the school closings, marched in front of downtown businesses, the county courthouse, and the nearby shopping center. The police were ordered not to interfere unless violence erupted. A contingent of white teenagers heckled the picketers, but there were no incidents and no arrests.

1963 Protests in Farmville

The campaign intensified the next day. Fifty teenagers resumed the marches from the day before, while others staged try-ins—a tactic where a Black patron entered a department store and tried on items with no intention of buying them, thus wasting the store clerk’s time—and sit-ins at lunch counters. The luncheonettes, which included Rhue’s Diner, Southside Sundry, J. J. Newberry, the College Shoppe, and Chappell’s Fountain, refused to serve the Black patrons. The manager at J. J. Newberry responded by closing the counter and removing the seats. Another group of demonstrators attempted to purchase tickets at the State Theater, but they were also refused service.

On July 27—a Saturday, which was the main shopping day in Farmville—the town’s mayor, Billy Watkins, denied Griffin’s application for a parade permit. Nevertheless, more than 100 people marched up and down Main Street and sang freedom songs. Ten demonstrators attempted a sit-in at the College Shoppe luncheonette, but were barred from entering. The group stood silently along the storefront and was soon arrested for loitering. (The five juveniles were released, as were three women who posted bond. Two men, the Reverend Richard Hale and Melvin Moore, refused bond and were jailed.) Afterward, Mayor Watkins informed Griffin that all future demonstrations would require a parade permit and that no permits would be issued on the weekends.

Demonstrator Carried from Church Steps in Farmville

On Sunday, the demonstrators targeted four white churches for integration: Johns Memorial Episcopal Church, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Farmville Presbyterian Church, and Farmville Baptist Church. Prince Edward’s white clergy had been largely silent on the school closings and racial discrimination, and the demonstrators were resolved to force white congregations to confront segregation. The demonstrators, divided into four groups, were able to enter Johns Memorial Episcopal, were asked to leave Wesleyan Methodist, and arrived too late to attend service at Farmville Presbyterian. The Farmville Baptist Church, however, simply refused to admit the Black worshippers, who, in response, remained on the church steps, praying and singing so loudly that they disrupted the service. The group of twenty-three was arrested for disturbing public worship. Griffin believed that the arrests “showed that the white ministers of this community and their congregations have failed to realize the moral issues connected with the integration movement,” but they also significantly diminished what had already been a small number of demonstrators.

The weekend arrests forced a change in strategy. Thereafter, Griffin reduced the threat of arrests by applying for and obtaining parade permits and observing local ordinances. His teenage volunteers still protested with try-ins and sit-ins, but left businesses when asked. Although these actions appeared conservative by the weekend’s standard, a new phase of the campaign had begun. Griffin was now focusing on exerting economic pressure on the business community. While demonstrators continued to picket downtown to discourage patrons from coming to Farmville, others initiated a boycott of businesses that practiced discrimination.

Reverend Goodwin Douglas

The following weekend, on Saturday, August 3, Mayor Watkins rejected the Reverend Goodwin Douglas’s application for a parade permit. Instead, the police roped off a one-block section of Main Street for protestors and warned Griffin that any demonstrators who crossed the line would be arrested. Douglas considered this arrangement a violation of his constitutional rights and challenged it by leading ten teenagers past the barricade and up Main Street to picket. They were arrested, as was another citizen a short time later, for parading without a permit. The campaign’s total number of arrests had risen to forty-four (twelve adults and thirty-two juveniles).

Demonstrations Decline

Fourth Circuit Court Ruling

The second set of arrests marked a turning point in the Farmville campaign. Afterward, participation dropped and the media lost interest. The segregationists had been winning a war of attrition during the school crisis, and they were prepared to wait out the picketers as well. Some white residents believed that the demonstrations would stop after a “few hot-blooded” teenagers left town for school, reported the Washington Post. On August 12, 1963, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the NAACP in Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County, finding that the county was not required by the Constitution to operate public schools. The NAACP soon appealed the case to the Supreme Court, but a hearing and final verdict were months away. In the meantime, Black students would have to leave town again to continue their education, thus sapping the campaign’s strength.

Since May 1963, the Kennedy administration had been quietly negotiating an agreement to restore universal education to the county. The administration had won the support of Governor Albertis S. Harrison, and the county’s attorney agreed to use his influence to obtain approval for the lease of the public school buildings, which would allow the administration to establish a private, unsegregated school system with financial support from philanthropic foundations and private donations. On August 14, 1963, Governor Harrison announced the organization of the Prince Edward Free School Association, a nonprofit organization that would establish and maintain a system of integrated schools in Prince Edward County.

Free Schools in Prince Edward County

On August 15, 1963, the Prince Edward County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court held hearings for the juveniles arrested in connection with the demonstrations. The court released the teenagers into the custody of their parents, but ordered them to observe a 10:00 p.m. curfew, refrain from disorderly picketing, maintain good behavior, and “attend school if such be possible.” Still, the court’s order did not break the resolve of the teenage activists. They pressed to continue picketing after school and on the weekends, but Griffin counseled them to focus on their studies. He expressed optimism that the Supreme Court would rule favorably on the school case and that the civil rights bill would become law. The energy of the Black community was diverted to organizing the Free Schools, which opened on September 16, 1963. Afterward, the demonstrations dissipated.


The Farmville campaign yielded mixed results. The campaign’s primary goal was reopening the public schools on a nondiscriminatory basis. That was not immediately accomplished, but the Free Schools temporarily filled the void and Griffin had obtained the Kennedy administration’s assurance of continued legal support. In May 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griffin v. County Board of Prince Edward County that the school closings were unconstitutional. In September 1964, public education resumed in Prince Edward County.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

The campaign also attacked Jim Crow more broadly. The boycott and picketing of storefronts demonstrated the Black community’s economic power and brought attention to discriminatory hiring practices. At the close of the campaign, a delegation of Black leaders won concessions from local businessmen to promote African Americans to sales positions and to hire more Blacks in general. Hiring discrimination and discrimination in restaurants, theaters, and other public accommodations were outlawed when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. African Americans immediately tested Farmville’s compliance, and these new patrons were met with courtesy at restaurants and the theater.

Despite these achievements, progress toward equal rights for whites and Blacks was slow in Prince Edward County. Public education was restored in 1964, but with inadequate funding and a nominal white enrollment. Voluntary concessions and force of federal law opened opportunities for African Americans in public accommodations, but poverty prevented many Blacks from enjoying the fruits of the summer of protest. Although federal law barred hiring discrimination, African Americans were employed for professional positions at a slow rate. Still, the Farmville campaign demonstrated that the Black community would no longer accept living in a Jim Crow society.

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.
June 1963
For the fifth consecutive year the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors votes not to allocate funds to operate public schools.
June 22, 1963
The Virginia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopts the Program of Action.
July 25, 1963
The Farmville demonstrations begin when a group of seventy demonstrators picket downtown businesses, the courthouse, and the Farmville Shopping Center.
July 27, 1963
Ten demonstrators are arrested for loitering outside the College Shoppe luncheonette on Main Street in Farmville.
July 28, 1963
Twenty-three people are arrested for disturbing public worship at the Farmville Baptist Church, which has refused entry to blacks.
August 3, 1963
Eleven people are arrested in downtown Farmville for parading without a permit.
August 12, 1963
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rules in Griffin v. Board of Supervisors of Prince Edward County that Prince Edward County is under no constitutional obligation to operate public schools.
August 14, 1963
Governor Albertis S. Harrison announces the organization of the Prince Edward Free School Association, a nonprofit organization founded to establish and operate integrated schools in Prince Edward County.
August 15, 1963
Judge William P. Hay Jr. of the Prince Edward County Juvenile and Domestic Court releases teenagers who had been arrested for picketing into the custody of their parents, but he orders them to observe a 10:00 p.m. curfew, refrain from disorderly picketing, maintain good behavior, and "attend school if such be possible."
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.
July 2, 1964
The Civil Rights Act becomes law, allowing the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to threaten southern localities with the loss of federal funding if they do not integrate their schools.
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.
  • Bonastia, Christopher. Southern Stalemate: Five Years Without Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • Lee, Brian E. “We Will Move: The Kennedy Administration and Restoring Public Education to Prince Edward County, Virginia.” In The Educational Lockout of African Americans in Prince Edward County Virginia (1959–1964): Personal Accounts and Reflections, edited by Terence Hicks and Abul Pitre. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2010.
  • Lee, Brian E., and Brian J. Daugherity. “Program of Action: The Rev. L. Francis Griffin and the Struggle for Racial Equality in Farmville, 1963.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 121, no. 3 (2013): 250–287.
  • Smith, Robert C. They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951–1964. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
  • Titus, Jill Ogline. Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
APA Citation:
Lee, Brian & Daugherity, Brian. Farmville Protests of 1963. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/farmville-protests-of-1963.
MLA Citation:
Lee, Brian, and Brian Daugherity. "Farmville Protests of 1963" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 May. 2024
Last updated: 2023, August 23
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