Prince Edward County, Va.: Success Bought at a High Cost

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Of all the communities among the Brown cases, this rural, Black Belt county in Virginia may have suffered the deepest scars--but not from bombs, cross burnings or any of the other violence desegregation sparked in much of the rest of the South. While today educators call its schools a model of integration, in 1959, Prince Edward County locked its schoolhouses for five long years rather than comply with Brown. "It turned our lives completely around," says Rita Moseley, a slender, soft-spoken school secretary and grandmother who was 12 the year the schools closed. "I will always wonder what I would have done, who I would have been."

Prince Edward is the only place where the students themselves launched the drive for integration. Before Brown, the county's black high school was so overcrowded, some pupils attended class in leaky, tar-papered shacks outside. Their outdated textbooks and buses were hand-me-downs from the white schools. One spring day in 1951, more than 450 students walked out to demand a new school. The student strikers wrote to N.A.A.C.P. lawyers in nearby Richmond, who took on their cause, and the case Davis v. County School Board was launched.

Despite the Supreme Court's ruling three years later, county supervisors refused to fund public schools serving all races. When a federal district court reaffirmed Brown in 1959, Prince Edward chained its schools' doors. White families attended a new private school in the county, with scholarships for those who couldn't afford it. Black families like Moseley's either sent their children away to stay with relatives or studied in small groups in churches and homes. Many simply went without schooling at all, as Moseley did at first. After two years of sitting at home, Moseley got an opportunity to stay with a family 140 miles away in Blacksburg, Va., and attended an all-black school there. "I used to cry in silence at night for my family," Moseley remembers. She returned to Prince Edward two years later to attend the privately funded "free schools" created as a temporary remedy by local black leaders. "They threw us all in together, taught a little of this, a little of that. It was a big confusion," Moseley recalls. When the public schools finally reopened under court order in 1964, Moseley went back, graduating two years later than she would have. She says she felt uncomfortable about walking in the ceremony and so didn't attend.

Starting in the early '70s, Prince Edward gradually integrated over the next three decades, thanks to an ambitious superintendent who improved academics and to liberal faculty at two local colleges who began sending their children to public school. Today Prince Edward's public schools are 59% black, 40% white and 1% other. Without violence, busing or magnet schools, the community that once chose no schools over racially mixed ones has achieved a level of integration far above the national average--typically, a white child attends a school that is 79% white. At the same time, Prince Edward's students are raising their state test scores. Black students are still slightly less likely to graduate than whites, but they fare better here than elsewhere in the state. "What they have accomplished in Prince Edward County is stunning," says Gary Orfield, of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project. "In the '60s, no one would have thought it possible."

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