Forty-five years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, former students from one of the four black schools whose separate-but-unequal treatment prompted that landmark ruling gathered here today in a ceremony of remembrance.
"Like the Jews remember the Holocaust, we shall never forget the price we paid for public education," said organizer James Ghee, standing in front of the Prince Edward County courthouse, where protests were held in the 1950s.
Several students who participated in a 1952 student strike that sparked one of the lawsuits in the court ruling recalled the event today. Also present were several younger blacks whose education was interrupted or eliminated when the all-white county School Board--bolstered by a state government policy of massive resistance to integration--closed the public schools here for five years rather than allow black children to sit next to white ones.
M. Boyd Jones, 89, who was principal of the black R.R. Moton High School when the two-week student strike began on April 23, 1951, elicited tears and a few smiles when he recalled how he was tricked into leaving the school building that day so the students could organize the walkout in an assembly in the auditorium.
Although Jones said he did not know about the students' plan, he said he had been "training them for four years" to stand up for their rights. "We taught them to become dissatisfied with mediocrity, with hand-me downs," with a building so crowded that one class met in a school bus in the parking lot.
"Those students had no idea they were about to be part of history," Jones recalled. All they wanted was for the School Board, in this rural county 70 miles southwest of Richmond, to live up to its separate-but-equal slogan by building them a new school and giving them new books and supplies, as it did for the county's white pupils.
But when strike leaders asked the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to defend them from expulsion, NAACP lawyers agreed to help only if the demands included an end to segregated schools.
Petitions for that cause were circulated among Moton parents, many of whom signed even though they feared it would cost them their jobs, and three years later, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was consolidated with similar lawsuits brought in Topeka, Kan., Clarendon County, S.C., and Wilmington, Del. The case became known collectively as Brown v. Board of Education, named for a black girl in Topeka.
The Supreme Court's unanimous decision of May 17, 1954, said that "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal . . . [and] a denial of the equal protection of the laws" guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. A companion case from the District of Columbia, brought under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment (because the 14th applied only to states) produced an identical ruling.
But officials in Virginia enacted a series of laws designed to thwart the federal order. Five years later, when federal and state courts ordered Prince Edward County, the most obdurate opponent, to desegregate, the county used the new state laws to close the public schools and finance a private, segregated academy for its 1,800 white students.
From 1959 to 1964, the county used tax money from whites and blacks to finance the academy, while the 1,800 black students moved or, in most instances, went without an education. In 1963, a private, free school for all children opened, and many black children, along with two whites, returned to classes. In 1965, the public schools reopened, again with only a few whites attending.
Loretta Branch Brown, who was the valedictorian of the Class of 1951, remembered having "conflicting emotions" about the strike, but "we knew it was the right thing to do."
Brown, a teacher in Cincinnati, said her mother lost her job at Longwood College here as a result of the strike, "but she knew our cause was just."
Today, Brown said, she retains a "streak of anger" when she wonders "why did we have to do all that" just to get a chance for an equal education.
Joan Jones Cobb, who was a freshman in 1951, was unaware that her sister, Barbara Jones, was going to lead the strike until she saw her in the auditorium.
"I slid down in my seat when she started to talk" about the walkout "because I was very afraid of the consequences," recalled Jones, of East Orange, N.J.
In later years, Cobb said, her sister, who died in 1991, often wondered what happened to the teachers who lost their jobs "and even about some of the [few] white students" who missed out because they did not attend the academy.
Over the decades, whites drifted back to the public schools. This year, according to Superintendent Margaret Blackmon, 41 percent of the county's 2,650 pupils are white. The academy, which eventually admitted a few blacks to preserve its tax-free status, has fewer than 200 students.
"This community has a very strong determination to have a strong, quality public school system," said Blackmon, who added that 90 percent of the county's students attend public schools.
After the remembrance ceremony, about 100 participants marched up the hill to their old black neighborhood, now mostly replaced by expansions at Longwood College. Along the way, they placed a wreath on the grave of the spiritual leader of the drive for equal rights in Farmville, the Rev. L. Francis Griffin Sr. Then they held a rally at the now-abandoned Moton school, for which half of a needed $300,000 has been raised to preserve it as a civil rights museum.
CAPTION: Marchers in Farmville, Va., commemorated a protest in 1951, when black students went on a two-week strike against inferior school facilities and resources.