From kindergarten to second grade, Archer bounced between “black schools” in Prince Edward County churches, run by volunteer instructors. She remembers, at 6 years old, asking through tears about the reason for the disruption.
“Some people just don’t like us,” her mother said.
To Archer and others, the scholarship program represents more than compensation for schooling disruptions: It also is an acknowledgment that segregation was immoral. Offering the award to white students, Archer said, dilutes that message.
For years, Virginia has wrestled over how to recognize its troubled racial history.
Tensions surfaced last year when Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) omitted any mention of slavery when he proclaimed April “Confederate History Month.” He later apologized.
From 1984 to 2001, the state declined to set aside a holiday dedicated only to the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, Virginia had a Lee-Jackson-King Day, commemorating the slain civil rights leader alongside two Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The state now has a separate holiday in January for Lee and Jackson.
In 2003, the General Assembly debated whether to “express regret” or “apologize” for the massive resistance policy in a public resolution.
“The feeling was, ‘We didn’t do this, so why should we apologize?’ ” said Viola Baskerville, then a delegate from Richmond. The subsequent declaration of regret stated that both black and white Virginians “were affected as well by the deep, contentious division created by the denial of public education to the African-American community.”
When the scholarship was created, state officials faced thorny questions over who deserved compensation and what form it should take.
Treading new ground
Similar questions have arisen elsewhere.
In 2001, a task force in Harrison, Ark., considered providing scholarships to black students a century after African American residents had been driven out of town by a white mob. In 2004, a federal court weighed whether Oklahomans should receive compensation for a 1921 Tulsa race riot. In 2006, the Brown University community in Rhode Island debated whether the school should make financial amends for its use of slave labor.
None of those debates resulted in concrete reparations. When Virginia lawmakers considered the Brown v. Board scholarship, they were on new ground. Experts say that no other state has such a scholarship.
“This wasn’t easy,” said Baskerville, who sponsored the scholarship legislation. “And it would have been much harder politically if it was only tailored to black students.”
No one disputes that some white students faced educational challenges during the resistance era. Although the state created a voucher program to help white children attend private schools, tuition was not always wholly subsidized, leaving poor whites with few options. But historians note that massive resistance hurt black students most.
“To say that white students are as entitled to compensation, that speaks to the politics of the state, not the call for justice,” said Clarence E. Walker, a professor at the University of California-Davis who has studied reparations.
Virginia’s scholarship winners, mostly in their mid-60s, get anywhere from $300 to $10,000 a year for courses of their choosing, ranging from vocational training to doctorate-level classes. The program began with a $1 million donation from the billionaire media investor John Kluge and a matching amount from the state.
Ken Woodley, editor of the Farmville Herald in Prince Edward, helped come up with the idea for the scholarship. It was meant to be a modest step to right a racial wrong, he said.
“When I came up with the idea, I was thinking of African Americans,” he said. “I’ve had a hard time thinking of white students being hurt.”