Schools: Catching Up in Prince Edward

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In the sweltering heat of Virginia's Prince Edward County, Negroes woke from long torpor last week to demonstrate against the most infamous segregationist tactic in the U.S. — the closing of all public schools there since 1959. White officials requested extra jail space in eight surrounding counties — enough, said one Negro leader, "to house every citizen of Prince Edward County, Negro and white, including horses, cattle and dogs." The poignant point of the strug gle was summed up in one teen-age picket's placard. It read: DEMOCRASY. "These niggers can't even spell," scoffed a white cop. "What do you expect?" snapped a Negro minister. "They haven't been in school for four years."

Timely Gift. Prince Edward County (pop. 14,121), a tobacco-growing farm land 70 miles southwest of Richmond, is increasingly illiterate. Four years ago, 3% of Negroes aged 5 to 22 could not read and write; now the rate has grown to 23% , according to a sur vey made by Michigan State University. Some poor whites are also unschooled: other whites pay tuition averaging $265 to send their children to "private" schools, including a handsome new high school in Farmville, the county seat. Most of Prince Edward's 1,725 Negro children get no formal education at all. The Michigan team found youngsters of seven who are unable to hold a pencil or make an X.

To this miasma two weeks ago came 40 strangers with a timely gift: free schooling. They include a score of New York City public school teachers, eight of them Negro, financed in part by the American Federation of Teachers; 16 Queens College students, all but one white, who practiced tutoring all winter and raised $7,200 to pay their way; and such irregulars as a Brooklyn private school teacher who quit his Virginia vacation when he read of the project in local newspapers.

Armed with 20,000 books, the volunteers hold classes for four hours a day at seven makeshift centers around the county. In Farmville, classes fill the pews of Beulah A.M.E. Church and the First Baptist Church. In Levi, the teachers swept the broken glass out of an abandoned schoolhouse and set up shop. In Hampden-Sydney, they teach in a fly-swept Sunday school with chickens scratching in the dust outside. And the kids, some of them walking three miles, have flocked to school in such numbers that teachers had to cut off enrollment at 500.

Rage & Reason. The children make pathetic mistakes. "Whose name begins with L?" a teacher asks in kindly New Yorkese. "Mine," comes the answer in a soft Virginia drawl. The boy, aged nine, is named Earl. Yet by now the kids are scrawling their names in script, and one teacher has his charges deep in simple "science experiments." The chief effect is a bright-eyed attentiveness worthy of West Point. "They've got the ability," says Teacher Lou Mercado. "All they need is the teaching. Motivation here is very high. We don't get the ordinary discipline problems."

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