Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County (Virginia)
The demands of the Robert R. Moton High School students who led the strike against the school on April 23, 1951 were simple: facilities equal to those provided to white high school students as required by law. The strike lasted ten days, during which NAACP lawyer Oliver Hill promised that action would be taken on their behalf.
But the suit that was eventually filed, Dorothy E. Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County-noteworthy because it was the only one of the five consolidated cases that was pursued by students-sought more than equal facilities: rather, it directly challenged Virginia's laws requiring segregated schools.
Robert B. Moton High School students who attended school in 1951 did so in desperately unequal conditions.
Classrooms were overcrowded, with overflow spilling into school buses. Four years earlier the school had been ruled inadequate by the State Board of Education and, by 1951, the facility, which had been built to accommodate 180 students, was being used to serve 450.
Countywide, in 1951, all but one of the 15 black school buildings was a wooden frame structure with no indoor restroom facilities; had only wood, coal, or kerosene stoves for heat; and a total property value of $329,000.
By comparison, all seven white schools were made of brick; with steam or hot water heat and indoor toilets; with a total property value of $1.2 million. The county spent $195 per capita for black students while spending $317 for white students
As anticipated by the NAACP legal team, the Virginia courts ruled that the facilities were unequal and should be equalized to meet the standard of "separate but equal" laid out in Plessy v. Ferguson. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and combined with four other cases under Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS.
In the wake of the Brown decision, Virginia Senator Harry Byrd led a policy of "massive resistance" to court-mandated integration in the state. This policy took its most destructive form in Prince Edward County.
In 1959, the county board of supervisors abolished public education rather than allow black and white students to go to school together. The vast majority of the county's 1,700 African-American students went without formal education for the next five years - students whom historians have labeled "the crippled generation."Following the Brown decision, Virginia Senator Harry Byrd led a policy of "massive resistance" to court-mandated integration in the state. This policy took its most destructive form in Prince Edward County.
During this period, Prince Edward County became a focal point on both sides of the desegregation issue. Money poured in from segregationists all over the nation, which allowed the county to open Prince Edward Academy, a segregated white private school.
The county then instituted a school voucher plan to ensure that white parents could afford to send their children to the private school. People from other Southern towns came to Prince Edward County to take lessons in fighting desegregation.
At the same time, pro-integration organizations such as the NAACP and the American Friends Service Committee arrived to investigate and report on conditions. These groups and black colleges did what they could to offer educational alternatives for the locked-out African American students.
The situation lasted for five years, until a Supreme Court decision in 1964 forced the county to reopen the public schools. Though with virtually all of the white students in private school, the public schools remained segregated all-black institutions.
A Snapshot of Price Edward County
Over time, conditions in Prince Edward improved. Even Prince Edward Academy eventually integrated, though it did so to avoid losing its tax-exempt status. By 2001, the county that had once been the benchmark for white resistance to desegregation, has a school system that is far more integrated than the national average, with the typical black student in a school with 40 percent white students.
Even with its high level of integration, there is still a significant disparity in the opportunities afforded to Prince Edward students.
The overall numbers are small, with a student body of only 1035 whites, 1550 blacks and 15 Hispanics, but Prince Edward follows the national pattern of providing far fewer academic enrichment courses to black and Hispanic students than it does to white students.
White students are more than 4 times as likely to have the advantages of gifted and talented programs than black and Hispanic students are.