Early Desegregation Efforts
Virginia's public schools had been segregated racially since their inception in 1870. So, too, were the state's public colleges and universities. Through local organization and the ballot, black Virginians were able to pressure state and local authorities to provide support for their schools. Following the disfranchisement of black voters in the Virginia Constitution of 1902, however, funding for black schools fell far short of what white schools received, and the discrepancies in salaries for teachers and administrators were stark.
The segregation of public schools went beyond issues of black and white. Members of Virginia's Indian tribes were also largely excluded from public education. While many tribes established mission schools early in the twentieth century, these schools often only went up to the seventh grade. Meanwhile, many Indian children, whose help was needed at home or in the fields, never made it past elementary school. Public high school was available only to Indians who were willing to attend blacks-only schools, and most refused. They did this in an effort to maintain their cultural identity in the face of of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which had deemed almost all Indians, for legal purposes, to be black. A number of the Powhatan tribes sent their children to the Bacone School in Oklahoma and to other such facilities, where they could complete high school and go on to earn the equivalent of a community college degree. Public schools were not opened to Virginia Indians until 1963.
Brown and Massive Resistance
Early in the 1950s, the Virginia state NAACP joined the national organization (based in New York City) in a legal attack on the constitutionality of segregation itself. The lawsuit Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, filed in 1951 joined four similar NAACP suits filed in other locations around the country before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on the combined cases in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education.
Southern whites generally opposed school desegregation and southern public officials fought the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education fiercely. Newly created white segregationist organizations, such as the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, the leading segregationist organization in Virginia, encouraged white resistance. Between 1954 and 1959, state officials evaded school desegregation by arguing against the implementation of Brown in court cases (generally filed by the NAACP) and by passing legislation aimed at making the school desegregation process more cumbersome and difficult through a policy known as Massive Resistance.
Following this initial school desegregation, public officials in Virginia worked to minimize the amount of desegregation that would take place in the state's public schools thereafter. Black students who sought to transfer into white schools were forced to go through a complex selection process, and the majority of applicants were rejected. At the same time, state investigative committees attempted to reduce the influence of the NAACP in Virginia, and sought to make it more difficult for the organization to file additional school desegregation lawsuits in the state. As a result of these and other policies, school desegregation in Virginia proceeded at a snail's pace. As late as 1965, fewer than 12,000 of the approximately 235,000 black students in Virginia went to desegregated schools.
The End of Massive Resistance
Starting in 1968, a series of three U.S. Supreme Court decisions increased the pace of school desegregation even more. The first case, Charles C. Green et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, et al., resulted in the end of so-called "freedom of choice" plans that shifted the burden of integration from African American students directly onto school boards. In 1969, a follow-up ruling based on a desegregation case in Mississippi increased pressure on the South to integrate its schools. Finally, in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, which legitimized busing as a means of integrating schools and mandated that southern school districts immediately move to comply with the court's mandates starting with Brown in 1954.
As a result of these court decisions and the growing role of the federal government in the desegregation process, large numbers of African American students entered formerly white schools, and vice versa, late in the 1960s and early in the 1970s. In many cases compliance was achieved by eliminating the racial composition of schools and simply enrolling students into the schools closest to their homes. Where this policy would not result in significant integration, other means were developed. By the middle of the 1970s, a major goal of the civil rights movement—the desegregation of the public schools—had been accomplished, in Virginia and throughout the nation.
May 17, 1954 - The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, but fails to explain how quickly and in what manner desegregation is to be achieved. The decision leads to the Massive Resistance movement in Virginia.
November 1955 - Virginia state senator Garland Gray introduces the Gray Plan, which proposes the selective repeal of the compulsory school attendance law in an effort to slow desegregation in Virginia.
1956 - Harry F. Byrd Sr. pushes for the school-closing laws that lead to the closing of schools ordered to integrate.
September 15, 1958 - Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closes Warren County High School, the first school held in violation of his statewide mandate against desegregation.
September 1959 - Though Massive Resistance has already ended, the Prince Edward County School Board closes its public schools to resist desegregation.
1960 - Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. retreats from his hard-line stance and allows all Virginia schools to passively resist desegregation through token integration.
1961 - Benjamin Muse writes Virginia's Massive Resistance in an effort to persuade other southern states not to resist desegregation.
September 16, 1963 - The 1,500 black students of Prince Edward County, mostly unschooled for four years, are invited to return to formal classes through the assistance of the new, privately organized Prince Edward Free School Association, which leases four of the closed public school facilities for one year with the support of federal officials and private funds.
July 2, 1964 - The Civil Rights Act becomes law, allowing the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to threaten southern localities with the loss of federal funding if they do not integrate their schools.
May 27, 1968 - The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Charles C. Green et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, that the New Kent School Board has to "convert promptly to a [school] system without a 'white' school, and a 'Negro' school, but just schools." The ruling quickens the pace of desegregation in Virginia.
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First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: May 30, 2014