Education: Focus on Prince Edward

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Peaceably in Atlanta, heatedly in New Orleans, the South last week went ahead desegregating its schools—notably, this year, its Roman Catholic parochial schools. Less in evidence than in any recent year were the contorted faces of picketers crying "Nigger, go home!" And more conspicuous by contrast was Virginia's Prince Edward County (pop. 14,121), the only U.S. community to close all its public schools rather than desegregate them. In 1865, Prince Edward County was the scene of General Robert E. Lee's desperate last-ditch retreat toward Appomattox. Now this tobacco-growing farmland 70 miles southwest of Richmond is the scene of the nation's most desperate rearguard action against school integration.

Pinched Pocketbooks. Prince Edward in 1959 abruptly cut off tax support for its 21 segregated public schools (seven white, 14 Negro), padlocked them, and set up the Prince Edward School Foundation—a "private" school system for 1,325 white children who took their lessons in churches, public halls and a $256,000 private high school built last year in Farm-vine, the county seat. For three years most of Prince Edward's 1,400 Negro children have gone without formal education.

In the first year, contributions paid nearly all the whites' tuition. Second year, state and county grants covered it except for $15 per pupil that parents paid. When a federal court outlawed that, the Prince Edward Foundation last year was forced to charge an average tuition of $241.89—pinching many a poor white farmer's pocketbook. This summer came another pinch: Federal Judge Oren R. Lewis ordered Prince Edward to submit a plan to reopen public schools for both races "at the earliest practical date." The county submitted nothing remotely acceptable.

"Blot on Virginia." Since the Virginia state constitution guarantees free public schools throughout the state, closing some but not others is a patent violation of the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" clause. (This fall the whole state of Virginia expects 1,200 Negroes in 130 desegregated schools.) Thus Prince Edward's Negroes have a legal weapon: they can push to stop state funds for all public schools in Virginia.

They have not yet done so. Meanwhile Virginians are fast realizing that Prince Edward's refusal to educate Negroes is not only "a blot on the county and on Virginia," as the Roanoke World-News recently snapped, but also a threat to every other community—for in the last resort, either Prince Edward gives in or all the public schools in the state must close.

In a hearing at week's end. Judge Lewis put off that Draconian measure, instead urged both sides to seek a ruling from the State Supreme Court of Appeals which could then be taken to a Federal Appellate Court. If Judge Lewis's position is upheld, odds are that he will first repeat his order of this summer, hoping for a compromise that keeps private schools open for whites, but reopens public schools for Negroes.

Meanwhile, Prince Edward's Negro children are in an appalling bind. Says one Negro girl: "Here I am 15, and it looks like I'll be 30 before I get through high school."

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