Prince Edward and the Past

Massive resistance has faded, but something hidden remains

  • Share
  • Read Later

The slave quarters vanished long ago. The blackened chimney of the plantation house still stands in the wooded farm country of Prince Edward County, 60 miles southwest of Richmond. Vanessa Venable's ancestors, who were slaves there, dug the clay that made the bricks.

Now Vanessa Venable owns the plantation, or 600 acres of it. The chimney is her haunting and triumphant little ruin. Mrs. Venable, a schoolteacher for 42 years and past president of the Prince Edward County N.A.A.C.P., lives with her husband, the Rev. H.R. Venable, in a brick bungalow on the site of the slave owners' house.

The order of things, the feudal inevitabilities, can be changed, with endurance. The Old South was always saying No! in thunder, and Virginia had a gift of eloquent defiance. In 1959, rather than submit to federal court orders to merge their two public school systems (black and white), the supervisors of Prince Edward County closed them down, and then kept them closed for five years. It was an extension of "massive resistance," the last stand of states' rights. The position was argued in high legalisms. But in deeper truth, Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. and other leaders of white Virginia were constructing a cathedral of rhetoric ("interposition . . . sacred duty . . . priceless natural right . . .") to enshrine the remnants of the nation's original sin, slavery.

Prince Edward County's whites established a private school system for their own children, and offered to help blacks do the same. The blacks insisted on integrated public schools. Black families that were lucky sent their children to relatives in other counties or states where the public schools were open. But many of the children went five years without entering a classroom. At last, the Supreme Court ordered the public schools reopened, and racially integrated. By that time, a generation of Prince Edward's black children had been profoundly wounded. Many have never recovered. The drama blew a hole in their lives. A documentary film about those years called them "the lost generation." Many have transmitted the traumas -- illiteracy, for example, indifference to learning, a sense of defeat -- to their own children.

Prince Edward has a sort of archaic rural beauty, with sleek Black Angus cattle grazing, hay baled in cylinders in the fields and an enveloping sweetness of landscape and seasons. It is -- or was -- a peculiar charm of the county that virtually everyone knew everyone else, and spoke with outward courtesy. Most of the families, black and white, have roots that go back 200 years, their lives, for good and ill, entwined. The blacks lived in intricate dependency upon the whites, who owned the land and held the power. But the foundation of white paternalism was segregation: when segregation was endangered, the relationship dissolved.

Vanessa Venable was teaching ninth grade in the black school system in 1959 when the county shut down the public schools. The blacks knew nothing in advance. "I went to school one morning," Mrs. Venable remembers, "and the superintendent told us that Prince Edward County had gone out of the education business. I was shocked. It was like you had been living with vipers all around you and didn't know it."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2