Civil rights history tells us who loses when schools are closed

This opinion piece authored by Moton Managing Director Cameron Patterson appeared in the online local opinion section of the Washington Post on June 1st, 2020. This opinion piece delivers a powerful argument about our community’s civil rights history, and what it teaches about who pays the heaviest price when schools are closed. 

Science must guide the national debate over whether schools reopen in the fall, but history must have a voice, too. We cannot forget who pays the heaviest price when children are denied the chance to learn in person — not just now, but for generations.

Here in Prince Edward County, Va., we have lived the history of what it means for students to be deprived of access to in-person schooling for an extended period. After decades, the scars are still visible in our community, particularly among African Americans, sketched in the altered lives of those directly affected, now in their late 60s and 70s, and compounded through their children and grandchildren.

Today’s pandemic is, of course, a completely different historic circumstance and much vaster in scale. The United Nations estimates 87 percent of schoolchildren globally, or 1.5 billion, have had their school disrupted. Virginia’s civil rights history calls us to do all we can within the bounds of safety to return students to the structure and opportunity classroom learning alone can provide.

Prince Edward played a key role at two critical moments of American civil rights history — one heroic, one shameful. On April 23, 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns took the stage in the auditorium of the dilapidated, horrifically overcrowded all-black Robert Russa Moton High School and, with a firm and precocious voice, rallied hundreds of her classmates to strike to protest the conditions.

Eventually, Moton students accounted for three-quarters of the individual plaintiffs in the court cases decided together three years later as the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education. But in 1959, Prince Edward County became Ground Zero for Massive Resistance. Rather than integrate, Prince Edward closed its public schools entirely for five years — far longer than anywhere else in the nation.

Members of this “locked out” generation heroically labored to piece together educations in their basements and churches, some with help from educators who traveled to Prince Edward to form a “Free Schools” movement. Some moved and enrolled in other counties. A few made it to college, including Dorothy Holcomb, now 70, who later returned home to Prince Edward and served on the school board.

But while we celebrate such resilience, these stories are more visible than those of the students whose lives were jolted off course. Holcomb has called what happened to the children she grew up with an “educational genocide,” and the wounds have never fully healed. Members of our community still speak of the lasting trauma of that time. They paid a lifelong economic price for what they didn’t learn — a price also visited on their descendants.

It is always those with relative advantages who best navigate disruption. In Prince Edward, a whites-only private school sprung up, supported with public funds. In those years, it was overwhelmingly — though not entirely — African Americans who suffered most when public schooling was denied to all.

Amid this current crisis, I can’t help notice such disparities emerging again. Moton, Virginia’s only civil rights museum, has been working to make available online learning tools and virtual visits during the pandemic. But who is using these resources? The same schools where students are getting the most from online learning more generally: private schools and public schools from well-off suburban districts, where students have ample support and Internet access.

I’m thrilled these students are learning our history. But from poorer and more diverse rural and urban districts, we’ve seen far less engagement. For a museum sharing the story of disadvantaged students denied an education because they lacked the means to adapt when the public schools were closed, the irony is painful.

The debate over reopening schools is gravely hard for African Americans. We’ve been hit disproportionately by the novel coronavirus. Members of the lockout generation I’ve spoken with here have important concerns about reopening society generally too soon and are wary of comparisons with their own story. Holcomb is grieving the death of a nephew from covid-19.

Still, she worries about the impact on today’s young people if schools cannot reopen.

“Just because it’s a challenge doesn’t mean we don’t do it,” she told me. “We have to continue to move forward, be creative and do what we can to continue educating our children while keeping them safe.”

Getting our schools safely open again will be a challenge. But it matters deeply that children, especially the most disadvantaged, learn together in person. Their social development, academic trajectory, mental health and even nutrition depend on it. School is essential to any hope of equality of opportunity and to our democracy itself.

The right to education was hard-won. It uplifts lives through generations, and we should ask what the decades ahead will say of us in this historic moment.

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