By 1960, African Americans comprised two-fifths of the population of Prince Edward County, yet the county had no black elected representatives. Blacks earned less than half as much as whites, and many lived in poverty. Professional employment was virtually closed to black workers. Law and tradition barred blacks from movie theaters, country clubs, and lunch counters; dictated racially segregated entrances and waiting areas in public accommodations; and proscribed social interactions to reinforce racial hierarchy.
The school closings had not elicited an organized direct-action campaign earlier because the black community had conformed to the NAACP's strategy of fighting inequality through litigation. By the spring of 1963, however, that approach appeared antiquated. Direct-action campaigns, like those in Birmingham and Danville, had changed the landscape of the civil rights movement: the protests, and the police brutality that accompanied them, had stirred the conscience of the black community. The Reverend L. Francis Griffin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmville and president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, sought to capitalize on the "Negro revolution" to effect racial progress. Late in June, Griffin convened a special meeting of the leaders of the Virginia State Conference in which they adopted a new approach.
The campaign initially targeted Farmville's business district, the principal shopping center for Prince Edward and five surrounding counties. On Thursday, July 25, 1963, a group of seventy picketers, carrying homemade signs protesting segregation and the school closings, marched in front of downtown businesses, the county courthouse, and the nearby shopping center. The police were ordered not to interfere unless violence erupted. A contingent of white teenagers heckled the picketers, but there were no incidents and no arrests.
On July 27—a Saturday, which was the main shopping day in Farmville—the town's mayor, Billy Watkins, denied Griffin's application for a parade permit. Nevertheless, more than 100 people marched up and down Main Street and sang freedom songs. Ten demonstrators attempted a sit-in at the College Shoppe luncheonette, but were barred from entering. The group stood silently along the storefront and was soon arrested for loitering. (The five juveniles were released, as were three women who posted bond. Two men, the Reverend Richard Hale and Melvin Moore, refused bond and were jailed.) Afterward, Mayor Watkins informed Griffin that all future demonstrations would require a parade permit and that no permits would be issued on the weekends.
The weekend arrests forced a change in strategy. Thereafter, Griffin reduced the threat of arrests by applying for and obtaining parade permits and observing local ordinances. His teenage volunteers still protested with try-ins and sit-ins, but left businesses when asked. Although these actions appeared conservative by the weekend's standard, a new phase of the campaign had begun. Griffin was now focusing on exerting economic pressure on the business community. While demonstrators continued to picket downtown to discourage patrons from coming to Farmville, others initiated a boycott of businesses that practiced discrimination.
Since May 1963, the Kennedy administration had been quietly negotiating an agreement to restore universal education to the county. The administration had won the support of Governor Albertis S. Harrison, and the county's attorney agreed to use his influence to obtain approval for the lease of the public school buildings, which would allow the administration to establish a private, unsegregated school system with financial support from philanthropic foundations and private donations. On August 14, 1963, Governor Harrison announced the organization of the Prince Edward Free School Association, a nonprofit organization that would establish and maintain a system of integrated schools in Prince Edward County.
The Farmville campaign yielded mixed results. The campaign's primary goal was reopening the public schools on a nondiscriminatory basis. That was not immediately accomplished, but the Free Schools temporarily filled the void and Griffin had obtained the Kennedy administration's assurance of continued legal support. In May 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griffin v. County Board of Prince Edward County that the school closings were unconstitutional. In September 1964, public education resumed in Prince Edward County.
Despite these achievements, progress toward equal rights for whites and blacks was slow in Prince Edward County. Public education was restored in 1964, but with inadequate funding and a nominal white enrollment. Voluntary concessions and force of federal law opened opportunities for African Americans in public accommodations, but poverty prevented many blacks from enjoying the fruits of the summer of protest. Although federal law barred hiring discrimination, African Americans were employed for professional positions at a slow rate. Still, the Farmville campaign demonstrated that the black community would no longer accept living in a Jim Crow society.
May 5, 1959 - The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturns Judge Sterling Hutcheson’s ruling in the case of segregated schools in Prince Edward County and orders Prince Edward to integrate its schools by September 1, 1959. NAACP and Prince Edward County lawyers will continue to fight in court over desegregation of the schools for the next five years.
June 26, 1959 - After eight years of court cases and delays related to school desegregation, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors votes not to fund public schools in the 1959–1960 school year.
September 10, 1959 - Public schools close in Prince Edward County. Prince Edward Academy opens for white students.
June 1963 - For the fifth consecutive year the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors votes not to allocate funds to operate public schools.
June 22, 1963 - The Virginia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopts the Program of Action.
July 25, 1963 - The Farmville demonstrations begin when a group of seventy demonstrators picket downtown businesses, the courthouse, and the Farmville Shopping Center.
July 27, 1963 - Ten demonstrators are arrested for loitering outside the College Shoppe luncheonette on Main Street in Farmville.
July 28, 1963 - Twenty-three people are arrested for disturbing public worship at the Farmville Baptist Church, which has refused entry to blacks.
August 3, 1963 - Eleven people are arrested in downtown Farmville for parading without a permit.
August 12, 1963 - The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rules in Griffin v. Board of Supervisors of Prince Edward County that Prince Edward County is under no constitutional obligation to operate public schools.
August 14, 1963 - Governor Albertis S. Harrison announces the organization of the Prince Edward Free School Association, a nonprofit organization founded to establish and operate integrated schools in Prince Edward County.
August 15, 1963 - Judge William P. Hay Jr. of the Prince Edward County Juvenile and Domestic Court releases teenagers who had been arrested for picketing into the custody of their parents, but he orders them to observe a 10:00 p.m. curfew, refrain from disorderly picketing, maintain good behavior, and "attend school if such be possible."
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.
May 25, 1964 - After Prince Edward County's public schools have been closed for the previous five years, the U.S. Supreme Court in Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County rules that the county has violated the students' right to an education and orders the Prince Edward County schools to reopen.
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.
September 8, 1964 - About 1,500 students, all but eight black, attend classes in the Prince Edward County public schools for the first time in five years.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Lee, B. E., & Daugherity, B. J. Farmville Protests of 1963. (2017, June 16). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Farmville_Protests_of_1963.
- MLA Citation:
Lee, Brian E. and Brian J. Daugherity. "Farmville Protests of 1963." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 16 Jun. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 21, 2014 | Last modified: June 16, 2017
Contributed by Brian E. Lee and Brian J. Daugherity. Brian E. Lee is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Brian J. Daugherity is assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.