(7) Virginia’s strategy for preventing integration changed its emphasis and tactics several times between the years 1954 and 1959. A state pupil placement act, passed in 1956, removed from the localities the power to assign students to schools and invested it in a board of state appointees. In 1958, nine schools, all candidates for integration, were briefly closed and tuition grants issued to the students. In 1959, a “freedom of choice policy” for pupil placement caused three state board members to resign in protest. The “freedom of choice” rule allowed localities the option of participating in the state placement system. Opting out of the state placement program required the recommendation of the local school board and approval of the city council or county board of supervisors. Emphasis was placed on geography or residence rather than other criteria.
Virginia’s efforts to maintain segregation were demonstrated nowhere as strongly as in Prince Edward County. The county became the model for what would happen if integrationists pushed local school boards. Between 1954 and 1964, tactics initiated by the state unfolded.
The first efforts to evade integration in Prince Edward County came in 1954 with the opening of a new Moton High School building. Students were moved out of the 1939 building into a newer and larger one in an attempt to prove the state was acting in good faith to ensure the equality side of “separate but equal.” The 1939 Moton High School Building was converted to an all-Black elementary school. The opening of the new school and the 1955 “all deliberate speed” decision provided Prince Edward County all the ammunition it needed to maintain segregated schools for the next 10 years. Wilbur Brookover details the efforts to maintain segregation in Prince Edward County following the 1955 decision:
Shortly after the second Supreme Court decision (Brown II, 1955) ordering desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” the county’s board of supervisors voted not to appropriate any money for desegregated schools. Shortly thereafter, the actively segregationist organization known as the Defenders of Liberty initiated efforts to raise money to hire teachers for White children in the county. When the U.S. District Court ruled that Prince Edward County did not have to desegregate immediately, the pledges of money were retained for further use. A strictly segregated public school system continued until further court action in 1959. At that time, the courts ruled that the county’s schools had to desegregate. The county supervisors again refused to appropriate money for desegregated public schools. Although the school board favored maintaining the public schools and obeying the court order, they were helpless to maintain the schools because the board of supervisors controlled all appropriations. Because of the board of supervisors’ actions, the public schools remained closed from fall 1959 to fall 1964. As far as this researcher has been able to determine, Prince Edward County is the only school district in the United States that closed its public schools for an extended period to avoid desegregation.
After the schools closed, the board of supervisors requested that the school board sell the buildings to a private White school foundation. At the initiative of its chairman, school board members resigned en masse rather than sell the schools. There was, therefore, no official body in place to sell the buildings. When the new school board was appointed, the effort to force the sale was not reinitiated. The White school foundation thus moved rapidly to raise money to establish the Prince Edward Academy, which used a variety of facilities beginning in fall 1959. Permanent Academy facilities for both elementary and secondary students were built soon after. Essentially all of the White children in Prince Edward County were enrolled in the Academy in the next few years. Some of the poor Whites in the county were provided scholarships to pay their children’s tuition. A few White families that could not afford the tuition and did not wish to accept welfare did not send their children to school. The number of such children is not available, but only a small proportion fell in this category.
Although Whites established a private foundation to provide similar opportunities for Black children, many Black county residents and the NAACP refused this on the grounds that it continued essentially the same situation that the Brown decision was supposed to end. Those opposing this effort vocalized their concern by actively working to discourage Black children from signing up for the private schools. In January 1960, the Southside Schools, the name given to the private schools, received an application from one Black student. After that, private school advocates decided to postpone their efforts to educate Black students.
There were, however, several Black students that continued their education by attending schools outside the county and state. Some students traveled as far as the high school branch of Kittrell Junior College in Henderson, North Carolina while others relocated to northern states.
Prince Edward County became nationally known for its refusal to integrate. Notable civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins visited Farmville. The NAACP used Prince Edward County as an example of all of its efforts to obtain civil rights during this period. In 1960, the National Council of Negro Women held a meeting in Washington, D.C., in which representatives of 21 organizations named the Reverend Leslie Francis Griffin chair of a project to set up training centers for Black children. The centers were to focus on “morale building” rather than on education. This choice was supported by many including the NAACP and other community members who believed that if they began to education on their own, the battle for integration would not only be lost in Prince Edward County but in other sections of the nation as well.
In 1961, the state began disbursing grants to students attending private, nonsectarian schools, or schools outside their home district. Funds were contributed from the state and all the localities. The difference between this program and a similar, previous plan was that now no reason for the alternative choice was necessary. Many who took advantage of it attended private schools even though they came from still-segregated districts. Others went from segregated to desegregated districts.
The General Assembly enacted laws permitting local school boards to provide transportation to private schools and allowing for a tax credit for those sending their children to such schools. Furthermore, teachers were permitted to discharge state education board scholarship obligations by teaching in private schools and to participate in the state retirement system while teaching in those schools. Legislation permitting local compulsory attendance laws, while repealing the state attendance law, was also passed that year. However, local school systems were still required to excuse children whose parents objected to their being sent to a particular school. In response, the NAACP asked the State Supreme Court of Appeals to demand that the board of supervisors appropriate funds for the public schools. In March 1962, the State Supreme Court ruled that the board of supervisors could not be forced to appropriate such funds.