The landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision officially desegregated public schools, but many states in the Deep South resisted the new law. On this day in 1959, a county in Virginia voted to defund the school system rather than have white students share space with Black students.
Prince Edward County, Virginia was the epicenter of decades-long tension as a result of the poor condition of Black schools in the rural areas. In 1951, Barbara Johns and other students walked out of the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in protest of the poor conditions there. The NAACP intervened and used the case to make its argument in the Brown v. Board of Education along with other similar cases.
The county’s resistance to the Brown ruling was deemed unconstitutional and that summer they voted to shutter the school doors. For the next five years, schools in the county were closed amid support from white segregationists who wanted their schools to remain racially separated.
The NAACP once again stepped in to bring national attention to the county, and both President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, spoke out in support of integration. Reportedly, it was the only county across the southern states to take such drastic measures to keep schools all-white.
Black students were invited to return to classes in September 1963 by the Prince Edward Free School Association. Three of the closed public schools were leased by the group for a year supported by President Kennedy and private donors. A small handful of white students also attended the Free School.
On May 25, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward that the defunding violated the students’ rights. School officially began in September 1964.
In April 23, 2001, Moton High school was converted into a museum commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Johns school strike in 1951.
PHOTO: Virginia Historical Society
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