This week: Shut Out of School
With Donald Baker
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, March 5, 2001; 1 p.m. EST
Fifty years ago in Prince Edward County, Va., integration came down to this: After blacks walked out of their segregated school, whites shut down the system for five years. Only now are the two sides talking about the lessons, the legacy and the pain of those closings.
Donald Baker, whose cover article "Shame of a Nation" appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, will be online Monday, March 5 at 1 p.m. EST to field questions and comments about the article.
Baker was a reporter or editor for The Washington Post from 1970
until his retirement in 1999. He became the newspaper's Richmond bureau chief
in 1986. Baker is completing a book on the effects of the school closings on
some of the Prince Edward County students.
The transcript follows...
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Your article was fantastic. It was very well written and the level of detail you included was amazing. You did a great job with a difficult subject. One of my favorite books is "Pillar of Fire" by Taylor Branch. I felt that reading your article was like reading an extension of "Pillar of Fire". Thank you
P.S. If someone wanted to contribute to the museum in Farmville that you mentioned in the article, do you know the address where a contribution could be sent?
Don Baker: It's an honor to be compared to Taylor Branch. He and Richard Kluger and Bob Smith were among my role models for this work. To make a tax deductible contribution to the museum make your checks payable to R.R. Moton Museum, P.O. Box 908, Farmville, Va. 23901.
You can also get additional information about the museum at www.moton.org.
Unfortunately I can't join you live, work!
In the article much mention is made of "states rights". With the current Supreme Court and their fascination with the 11th Amendment and convoluted reading of the 14th Amendment in the Florida election decision do you believe the outcome of the Prince Edward County cases would be different today? Have we moved forward only to have certain people want to return us to "the good ole days"?
With W's professed admiration for Scalia and thomas I fear for the future of the court.
Don Baker: I would hope that the Supreme Court would always make a decision similar to the one in Brown in 1954. In those days, the high court was the last refuge of those without power, whereas today, it does seem to be the refuge for those of the powerful and wealthy.
Several people affected by the school closing (my older sisters in particular)are interested in a class action lawsuit against Prince Edward Co. and the State of Virginia for stunting and interrupting their education. Have you heard of this in your research??
Don Baker: I know that there are many people who were affected by the closings who retain a great amount of anger, but most of those I have met are too busy trying to make the most of their lives to want to take any action that would revive memories of those days. However, I do know that some efforts are underway in the white community to formally go on record with an apology for what happened back then.
I thought the article was riveting. But I have a question about the title. Why was this the "Shame of a Nation?" I think it was the "Shame of the Old Dominion." It was "the Nation," wasn't it, that ultimately stopped Prince Edward County? Aren't you letting the state off a little too easy here?
Don Baker: While it was the state of Virginia and the leaders of Prince Edward County who were the principal villains in this shameful chapter of our history, there is plenty of blame to go around. Efforts to get the Eisenhower administration to intervene in the early days of the closings were rebuffed, and even appeals to Martin Luther King, Jr. to adopt the closings as one of his causes generated little interest.
Again, while the Prince Edward story is an extreme example of the efforts to retain segregated schools, many places in the north and south had their own dirty little secrets.
Chevy Chase, Md.:
It's interesting that many of the children that were relocated by the Quakers went on to become highly educated, whereas the it seems many of the children that stayed in Farmville gave up on their education. Why do you think this is?
Don Baker: I think the question illustrates two of the greater truths that are to be found in the Prince Edward story. The children who were taken in the Quaker program lived with families who set few boundaries for them. Their hosts expected them and challenged them to succeed and they did. For those who stayed at home, too many fell victim to low expectations.
Mr Baker: Your article was very interesting and I hope enlightening to many people. Why this sorry episode has been consigned to the relative dustbin of history is beyond me. Maybe the lack of bloodshed and/or absence of big-name personalities?
I was amazed to see one of the segregationists make the claim that this, like the Civil War, was about "states' rights," not race. I always ask people who claim this, "States' rights TO DO WHAT?"
Farmville should be as well known as Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Little Rock, etc.
Don Baker: I agree with you about Farmville's place in history. I also think that the lack of violence, while very commendable, played into the hands of those who oppressed the blacks.
The story is well written, and details an important chapter for a new generation to study. By not mentioning in any detail the courage and leadership demonstrated by the federal bench in Virginia, most specifically, the Hon. Walter E. Hoffman from Norfolk, a significant hole is left in this story. Judge Hoffman paid a high price for his brave positions, and his story should not be forgotten.
Don Baker: It is true that there were a few brave souls, on and off the bench, who did stand up, and I plan to talk about their role in my book.
Are there any legitimate claims toward state's rights any more in the aftermath of this? It would seem that Virginia's policy of "massive resistance" towards forced integration of public schools was forever obliterated by the federal government as a result of all this. I welcome your thoughts on this.
Don Baker: What goes around, comes around. I find it interesting that many social conservatives today want the federal government to override state's rights when it comes to issues such as school choice, vouchers and reproductive rights.
As a biographer of former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, how do you assess his contribution as a racial unifier? Did he help the state mend its divisions or was his legacy tarnished by his endless feuding with Sen. Chuck Robb and his dalliances with social hostess, former model and member of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors Patricia Kluge?
Also, did you interview political consultant Paul Goldman for you story?
Don Baker: Nothing will diminish the feat of Wilder becoming the first elected African American governor. As for his foibles, Wilder was not the first nor will he be the last to be less than a perfect person.
Whereas the Prince Edward story remains etched as a low point in Virginia's history, the election of Wilder will always be one of its bright spots, and a complement not only to Wilder but to those Virginians who made it happen.
How can anyone state that this is not an issue about race when the inequity in educational standards were so clear?
Don Baker: I can't understand that either, but I guess it is possible for people to believe, or at least delude themselves into believing, that other issues were involved.
As one of the shut-out students, I'm glad to have someone finally shed light on this atrocity. I thought that I would have to pass out flyers in front of the Capitol to make sure that this subject is known, and not continually "swept under the rug." I'm 49 now, and we moved to Washington, D.C. to enable me to attend school. I missed one year of school. Thanks.
Don Baker: Thanks for your comment.
Chevy Chase, Md.:
Thank you for writing this article. I'm from the West Coast, and had no knowledge of this sad affair.
You mention Robert E. Taylor as saying the whole thing was about states' rights. In the recent past, has the states' rights argument ever been used for a non-racist argument?
Is there any evidence that states' rights is anything more than a justification for racism? For instance, do the states' rights people support California's medical marijuana measure or the Oregon assisted suicide measure?
Don Baker: As I said earlier, the issue of states' rights is invoked only when it is convenient for those who seek to take a position other than that which is held at the time by the federal government. And over the years that juxtaposition has been used to provide cover for a whole host of causes, from integration to armed militiamen to school choice.
Mt. Rainier, Md.:
Thank you for a well done article. It was simultaneously depressing and uplifting, though I think the depressing won out. People really have not changed so much as one could wish, or we wouldn't be fighting these battles over and over again. I remember as a child in Virginia (late '60s), that the Jim Crow "tuition" laws were still on the books. My brother was able to get a tax refund of some kind for going to a private school. The ironic thing (my mother loved this) is that my lily-white brother was getting reimbursed to go to a black private school in D.C. that had special programs he needed. But the principal of the thing stunk to high heaven.
Don Baker: Those examples sure do illustrate that the devil is in the details of many situations. To show that not everyone's attitude has changed, let me quote from a story in today's issue of the St. Petersburg, Fla. Times, from a story about bussing.
One mother who said she will refuse to send her child to a black neighborhood said: "I have some real problems with desegregation in general. From everything that I have read, it has come to my attention that desegregation works for the black families, that black families are more successful when they work with white children. But I have a problem that my 9-year-old white daughter should have to sit next to a minority to give him the education he deserves... I think that we are being held hostage by the NAACP."
Menlo Park, Calif.:
Can you compare and contrast the school integration problems in greater Boston years ago, and the well-reported lack of tolerance there, with the the story you chronicle about integration in Prince William County.
Don Baker: The primary difference was the lack of violence in Virginia. Incidentally, I think that the varying attitudes of whites in Boston, who unlike those in Virginia were closer to the same economic status as those of the blacks, were chronicled brilliantly in Anthony Lewis' book, "Common Ground."
My name is Malvin Eanes Jr. I am the grandson of Hazel and the son of Shirley. For years I have witness the effects of the school closing. It has and will for ever change my life and the lives of so many others. I can't put into words the negative and yet positive events that have taken place in my life because of the closings.
It would be very interesting to me to find just how the closing has effected the offspring of so many.
Don Baker: Malvin, it is great to hear from you. Your mother and your grandmother changed my life also. One of the real joys of working on this book was the opportunity to meet such wonderful people. I hope that the book will demonstrate the impact of the school closings on a variety of people, not all of whom have had the strength to survive as well as your mother and grandmother.
Your article was one of the most moving this news junkie has read in many months. Thank you.
Quite aside from Virginia, how much of this type of discrimination; i.e., people who are not treated fairly in public life, at the polls and in society generally, still persists in this country? Do blacks feel unsafe in many communities? Are the schools really integrated everywhere? I read that the University of Georgia has less than 10 percent blacks in a state where the black population must be close to 50 percent. What are we doing about the remnants of segregation? What needs to be done?
Don Baker: We hear an awful lot these days about how affirmative action and other government programs and court rulings have given minorities an unfair advantage. But it has been my observation that most of those who still control the reins of power are, like myself, white males.
I worry that the media, especially through movies and television, are giving people the impression that most African Americans are either involved in drug dealing or other crimes, or are spoiled and overpayed professional athletes. The black folks who I have met in years of researching this subject have been, almost without exception, honest hardworking people who want nothing more than a fair chance at chasing their dreams.
Are the Tidewater Academy, Southampton Academy, Amelia Academy (etc.) in Southside, Va., related in any way to the Prince Edward Academy?
Don Baker: Virtually every school in Virginia with the word "Academy" in its title was established as a way of defying integration. The one exception that I know of is the Norfolk Academy, which was founded perhaps 100 years ago, although there may be other exceptions.
I lived in Prince Edward County and started school the same year the schools were reopened. My mother Eddye D. Collette enrolled me in Lunenburg County schools just in case something went wrong. Thank you for sharing this forgotten episode with the nation. I called my mother (she still lives near Farmville) last night and we cried and talked about the past. I knew the Late Reverend Griffith and graduated with his son. I will buy your book and I also have a book published earlier about Prince Edward.
Don Baker: Please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org so that I can get a copy of your book. The Rev. Griffith was truly one of the giants of that age and I have been privileged to meet his widow and children.
Do you think the NAACP is proud of its role in the entire Prince Edward County affair? If so, how do you think that compares to the NAACP's stature and standing today?
Don Baker: I think the NAACP should be proud of its role in the Prince Edward case. I think the NAACP today is too large and diverse for me to make a single judgment on its activities.
I remember as a young teacher in California reading Bob Smith's book on Prince Edward County's closing -- shortly after its publication in 1965. Your excellent article touches but lightly on the enormous contributions made by a person Smith lauded, Neil Sullivan, with little or no remuneration led the creation and management of the Prince Edward County Free School. He and his family were subjected to considerable intimidation Smith explained. I'd appreciate your comments on what people interviewed for your article may have had to say about Sullivan who later went became the Berkeley, California Superintendent of Schools. Second, I look forward to reading your book. When do you expect it to be published? Thanks. LSB
Don Baker: I hope the book will be completed this summer.
I am aware of the role of Superintendent Sullivan, who I believe now is living in retirement in New Hampshire, and I plan to take note of his significant contribution. Despite revisionist history, there were very few white people who actively stood up in the time of that crisis, and for those who did, like Sullivan and former Longwood dean Gordon Moss, the repercussions were severe. I do believe that many white people in Prince Edward County disagreed with the actions that resulted in the school closings, but like the silent Germans during the Holocaust, they enabled the extremists to prevail.
Silver Spring, Md.:
I enjoyed your story and thanks for taking my question. I am troubled by one aspect. Can you tell me why the NAACP refused to cooperate with the state of Virginia and the authorities in Prince Edward County, Va. when alternatives were offered for black children's education? It would seem that given the two different sides' firm positions on the issues back then, the NAACP's complete unwillingness to compromise contributed, in part, to the the five year shutdown of the Prince Edward County schools.
I find the entire incident sad and tragic for the kids involved, but I don't see the NAACP as totally blameless in the matter either.
Don Baker: It is true that the NAACP refused to accept offers from the white community to build a new segregated school for blacks. But I think they correctly believed that to accept such an offer would have only perpetuated segregation, and perhaps only postponed the closing of the schools to a later date.
When so many of our schools are now becoming resegregated, what useful lessons can we draw from you history in addressing contemporary racial divisions?
Don Baker: I think the resegregation of the schools by housing patterns is unfortunate, but there is a great deal of difference between having a people of one race or economic status bunched together in certain neighborhoods and governmental policy that required segregation of the schools no matter where the children lived or what their circumstances were.
What role do you think the Moton Museum can play in "healing" the rifts in the community?
Don Baker: I have high hopes for the Moton Museum. But it will succeed only if, in the words of former locked out student Willie Shepperson, it is allowed to "tell the truth" about what happened so that such a thing can never be repeated.
I couldn't decide if I believed that the white people in your story regretted their actions of 40 years ago. Do you think Mr. Moore is truly sorry for the role he played? Have his views really changed?
Also, I agree that Common Ground is a great examination of Boston bussing. The author is J. Anthony Lukas (not Lewis, as you wrote).
Don Baker: Thanks for clearing up the author. Those NYT reporters all look alike to me.
As for Dr. Moore, I think we can look to his actions rather than his words to see if his views have really changed.
A further perspective on the previous post as to the results of those aided by the Quakers and those who stayed at home. Don is absolutely correct with regard to their motivation. Remember also, some who were attempting to start first grade in 9/59 and were unable to leave the county for schooling, were 11 years old before they were exposed to their first formal education. Those that were, say 11 when they closed, were beyond schooling by the time they reopened; pregnancies, crime, etc.
Don Baker: I agree that it was especially difficult for Shirley and people like her husband and his family, and unfortunately only a few either had the ability or fortitude to overcome their very late start.
Hi Don. Your piece in yesterday's magazine was moving and enlightening. I graduated from Longwood College in Farmville in 1979 and had no idea such a history existed in the town. I vaguely recall someone saying Martin Luther King had stood on the steps of First Baptist Church in Farmville in the '60s. Is this true? And when will your book be published?
Don Baker: King made one visit to Farmville during the period, but I believe it was in a church rather than outside.
Don Baker: I hope that those of you who have been watching this and have thoughts or tips for me will get in touch via e-mail as email@example.com.
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