"The Issue Is the Control of Public Schools": The Politics of Desegregation in Prince Edward County, Virginia

Article excerpt

The issue is not the people versus the public schools ... The issue is the control of public schools. The question is: Will public education be controlled by the people who pay for it, or by the fideral courts, which under pressure of organized minorities threaten to dominate it?

--J. Barrye Wall, "The True Story of Prince Edward County" (1)

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Before a packed crowd of over 700 parents, teachers, and students, R. R. Moton High School alumnus Willie Shepperson revealed the high stakes involved with public school desegregation. At the April 28, 1969, Prince Edward County school board meeting, he outlined the county's troubling educational and racial history and assured school officials that "blacks, like whites, did not want interracial marriage." Instead, he argued, "the issue is equalization." Shepperson's pronouncement was a step forward from the earlier NAACP equalization suits of the 1930s and 1940s, in which lawyers pushed the federal courts to uphold the "equal" aspect of "separate but equal" by equalizing material resources. Integration held more promise for African Americans' full participation in educational decision-making by enabling them to operate outside of Jim Crow racial geographies and power structures. To Shepperson and other Prince Edward County parents, this articulation of equality signaled a shift from a focus on racial integration to something more desirable: the power to determine their children's education. Warning school officials that "blacks were being pushed to the limit," Shepperson implored the school board to act quickly to right the racial wrongs done so consistently in the county. (2)

The central issue, in what Moton High School principal Alfred O. Hosley called "the straw that broke the camel's back," was the firing of popular white English teacher Thomas Burwell (T. B.) Robinson Jr. In the minds of the African American community, Robinson's immediate dismissal without just cause opened the door to a host of other examples of an uneven balance of power in school decision-making--including the hiring and firing of teachers, curricular choices, and resource allocation. Speaking to a growing sense of political and educational empowerment, Shepperson powerfully communicated to the Prince Edward County school board black students' demands for African American control over school policies and hiring procedures. (3)

Like Shepperson, newspaper editor and publisher J. Barrye Wall realized the significance of who controlled the public schools. Wall used the Farmville Herald to promote racial segregation. He argued that whites did not oppose the public education of blacks; they opposed that "the Negro children of Prince Edward are suffering the fate of being pawns in the hands of pressure politicians, more intent upon integrating the races, thereby stirring racial tensions, than in educating and developing the Negro people." Of the county's 14,379 residents, sixty-three percent were white and thirty-seven percent were African American. Yet the public schools remained over 97 percent black, illuminating a huge disparity between county population and public school representation. It was no surprise that heated debates over how school decisions would be made, and by whom, would mark the subsequent years of school desegregation, and they would call into question the roles of power and choice across the changing racial landscape of the South. (4)

Prince Edward County epitomized the importance of racial politics in the field of public education. In 1951, a Moron High School strike, led by sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns, drew public attention to the conditions in the overcrowded and grossly underfunded black segregated high school. Refusing to change its Jim Crow schools, the all-white school board stalled any financing of school improvements. Black students and parents signed a petition making Prince Edward one of the five communities that composed the NAACP-sponsored Brown v. …

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