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Repaying Segregation's Debt

Friday, August 5, 2005

MORE THAN MOST southern states, Virginia has surmounted its segregationist past, not least by becoming, in 1989, the first state to elect an African American governor, L. Douglas Wilder. (Mr. Wilder is now mayor of Richmond, capital of the old Confederacy.) This year the commonwealth has struck another blow to repudiate a unique event in U.S. history and one of segregation's worst chapters: the decision to close some Virginia public schools rather than comply with court-ordered integration after the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education . In recent months, dozens of black Virginians, mostly in their fifties and sixties, have been granted the first state scholarships, up to $5,500 each, to get what they were denied five decades ago: a public education.

The scholarships, which follow a resolution by the General Assembly two years ago expressing its "profound regret" at the school closings, do not heal the wounds inflicted by what was then known in Virginia as its policy of "massive resistance" to integration.

In southern Virginia's Prince Edward County, the most zealously anti-segregationist jurisdiction of the day, many black children went unschooled from 1959 to 1963, and some never got to resume their education; others attended makeshift lessons in churches or were sent far away to live with relatives or even strangers so they could continue going to school. Shortchanged by the state, they were unprepared for higher education and certain jobs and careers they might otherwise have had.

Nothing that Virginia can do will fully compensate for that disgraceful episode. Still, the scholarships are an appropriate and admirable act of contrition. As Gov. Mark R. Warner said, "This at least goes a partial way to [repay] the debt we owe to these folks." Even some whites will be eligible for the scholarships; as children they were also denied an education, being unable to afford the private academy established to serve them after the public schools were closed. More than 80 people, many of them still residents of Prince Edward, have already received scholarships for high school or college courses; several thousand more are eligible to apply. John Kluge, a Charlottesville media baron and philanthropist, has matched the state's own $1 million appropriation to fund the scholarship program.

If there is an inspirational note to this story, it belongs to Ken Woodley, the crusading editor of the Farmville Herald in Prince Edward County, who almost single-handedly conceived the idea of scholarships, campaigned for it in print and personally urged it on Mr. Warner and hesitant lawmakers.

In 1959, Mr. Woodley's own newspaper led the local chorus of opposition to integration, denouncing it as a communist plot against racial purity and the American way. Now the newspaper, under the same family ownership, has backed Mr. Woodley, and the state scholarships, to the hilt. That is a measure of Virginia's progress, and a credit to it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company