John Stokes, who attended all-black R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, was also involved in the historic Brown v. Board case. The 72-year-old retired Baltimore principal still remembers when he was a farm boy studying from hand-me-down texts sent from the white schools.
"They had written nasty names in the books, because they knew we were going to get those books," Stokes recalled recently at his Lanham home. "They were old and had torn-out pages."
Moton was built in 1939 for 180 students, but by 1950 it had nearly 500. Some classes were held in what were called "the tarpaper shacks," three old buildings that had no restrooms and were heated by potbellied stoves. "Chicken coops was what people said they looked like," said Stokes.
At least one class was held in an old bus, former students remember.
Stokes had traveled some and seen the fancy chemistry labs and gyms in the white kids' schools. "They could go to the bathroom in their school. . . . We had to run out into the street and go through the rain, or whatever the weather, in order to use the toilet" in Moton's main building, he said.
Moton parents pleaded with Prince Edward County for a new school but were told there was no money. Finally, on April 23, 1951, the students staged a walkout, led by 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns. They weren't looking to integrate the school system, Stokes said. They only wanted a new school.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People eventually persuaded the students and their parents to sue to end school segregation. Their lawsuit was among those grouped with the Brown case.
The Supreme Court's decision was only a partial victory for black children in Prince Edward. Rather than have blacks attend classes with white kids, the county shut down its public schools from 1959 to 1964. A private school was started for whites only. Some blacks were sent away by their parents to study elsewhere; others went to makeshift activity centers and one-room schoolhouses. Many lost years of education.
It was a rocky road, but one they had to take, Stokes says. "The younger generation of colored students . . . had stood up. There was no turning back."