The Fighting Preacher, Community Leader, Student Advocate
Rev. Leslie Francis Griffin (September 15, 1917 – January 18, 1980) embodied a life of service. Griffin first moved to the Prince Edward community at the age of 10. His family relocated from Norfolk, Va., when his father accepted the pastorate at First Baptist Church.
L. Francis served with the 758th tank battalion in WWII. He continued the quest for the Double V – “Victory Abroad and Victory at Home” – once he returned stateside through his faith practice and civic engagement. Griffin attended Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where he met and married Adelaide Payne, a fellow Shaw student. The growing family relocated to Farmville where Rev. Griffin began to serve as First Baptist’s pastor upon his father’s death in 1949.
Griffin was a proponent of the social gospel. He believed in the care of people here on earth and in the hereafter. He is quoted as saying, “The liberal theology preached in this church is based upon the Social Teachings of the Nazarene and emphasizes social action without regard of race or creed.”[i] His understanding of Christianity was to speak out against injustice using a love-ethic. [ii]
Rev. Griffin’s leadership extended well beyond his position with the church. He led the Moton High School Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and the local NAACP chapter, and eventually became President of the Virginia NAACP. He was consistently present in community conversations and supported attempts to gain full citizenship rights. Griffin was committed to social change and advocacy despite the cost. Commitment to positive change meant having his family in a vulnerable position, but the Black community of Farmville and Prince Edward supported the Griffins during the 1950s and 1960s. Community solidarity and mutual aid allowed the Black community in the area to persevere, and Rev. Griffin played a pivotal role in shaping it.
One of Rev. Griffin’s legacies is being a mentor and supporter of the students in Prince Edward. Barbara Johns reached out to Rev. Griffin for help to continue the 1951 student strike, and Griffin connected her to Oliver Hill, an NAACP lawyer. The NAACP filed the Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward case, which led to Prince Edward being part of the 1954 Brown v. Board case. Rev. Griffin also was a support system for the students protesting in 1963 and 1969.
The Prince Edward County Christian Association, established in 1959, was another way Rev. Griffin organized local leaders and resources to support students locked out of school. The program created ways for students to gain access to education despite the public school closings. Griffin also engaged with the Kennedy Administration to get support. The 1963 Free School gave an education option for all students in Prince Edward regardless of race and economic background and allowed locked-out students to have a formal education despite the public school closure.
The Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward case was argued in March of 1964. Cocheyse Griffin, one of Rev. Griffin’s daughters, was named the first party in the case. The suit was filed with the hope that the United States Supreme Court would rule that Prince Edward County had to reopen its public school system. The case asked whether Prince Edward County was denying citizens the 14th amendment right to equal protection by not providing public education. The Supreme Court handed down the Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward case on May 24, 1964, instructing the county to reopen its public schools.
Rev. Griffin continued to serve as pastor of First Baptist Church until his death of a heart attack on January 18, 1980. He lived a life committed to advocacy and service, despite the cost, and acted as a leader and shepherd to many in this community.
[i] 2019 program
[ii] Mike Utzinger, L. Francis Griffin 2021 MMTI presentation.
They Closed Their Schools.