Shame of a Nation

The Lessons and Legacy of the Prince Edward School Closings

Shirley Davidson Eanes with her mother, Hazel Mise. (Ron Aira)

By Donald P. Baker, Washington Post Staff Writer, Sunday, March 4, 2001; Page W08

For Hazel Miser and her daughter, Shirley Davidson Eanes, the announcement in their hometown newspaper about an upcoming conference on race relations in their rural Virginia county provoked a rush of memories and misgivings.

For decades, there had been almost no discussion between blacks and whites in Prince Edward County about what happened from 1959 to 1964 -- the years when white officials shut down the county's public schools rather than integrate, a closure that made headlines around the world.

Hazel, now 65, was a freshman at the county's all-black high school when students walked out in 1951 to protest the shabby conditions there. Eight years later, Shirley's education was disrupted by the county's decision to close the schools. Now those memories, stored away like a giant skeleton in a communal closet for nearly half a century, were going to be dusted off and discussed at a five-day symposium titled "Prince Edward Stories: Race, Schools, America," scheduled to take place at Hampden-Sydney College, just outside Farmville, the county seat.

Some residents of Farmville, population 6,500, feared a public airing would revive memories of the ugly role played by the county and the state of Virginia in the nation's protracted struggle for racial equality. Others had more personal reasons for staying away from a conference that seemed to suggest an attempt at racial healing.

"I'm just not ready for that kind of stuff," said a 53-year-old black professional whose father was fired from his job as a janitor at the black high school as a result of the school closings, and who himself was sent out of the state to get his high school education.

Robert E. Taylor also decided to ignore the October 1999 conference, because he didn't believe that he and other white leaders had anything to atone for. Taylor helped build a private whites-only school that was financed in large part with state funds. He contended that closing the schools was no more about integration than the Civil War was about slavery. Both, he insisted, were disputes over states' rights that trapped whites and blacks in a political argument.

Some whites expressed concern about what might happen at the conference. Ray A. Moore Jr., an elderly physician who served on the all-white school board during the closings, warned that one of the scheduled black speakers, Willie T. Shepperson, who participated in the 1951 protest as an eighth-grader, might incite violence.

Still, Hazel and Shirley, now 48, decided they would attend as many sessions as possible. Mother and daughter were curious as to what whites and blacks in Prince Edward -- folks who for the most part had said so little to each other for so long -- might finally have to say now.

When the day came and it was Willie Shepperson's turn to speak, he didn't mince words. He told the crowd that he had encountered Ray Moore outside the auditorium the day before. "All the old hostilities built up inside me, and the resentment," he recalled. The school closings spawned "a circle of hate and distrust," Shepperson said, and one of the people responsible was Moore.

Now Shepperson searched the audience for Moore, calling out, "Where are you?"

A short, graying man rose and answered, "Here."

The two men started toward each other, Shepperson from the stage, Moore from the seats below. The audience held its breath.

These days, Farmville is a small, well-kept town just this side of quaint. You can sip a mocha or dine on non-fast food in its restaurants, browse for antiques and roam for hours in the handsome brick warehouses and converted showrooms of Green Front, the giant furniture store that folks flock to from as far away as Washington, 170 miles to the north. Thanks to the presence of two colleges, there are regular concerts, plays, athletic contests and a summer music festival. Other than a couple of plaques on the lawn of the deserted Robert Russa Moton High School, there's nothing to indicate that for more than a decade this Southside Virginia community was ground zero in the civil rights struggle.

It was April 23, 1951, when Hazel Miser (then Hazel Davis) and her fellow students went on strike at overcrowded Moton High, demanding facilities equal to those of the newer white high school. Moton, designed to accommodate 180 pupils, was overcrowded almost from the day it opened in 1939, and by 1951 the building was bulging with 450 students. Four years earlier, the state had offered to fund an addition if the county would provide matching funds, but the all-white board of supervisors had refused. Instead, it had installed three tar-paper buildings in the back yard, which Hazel Davis and her classmates dubbed the "chicken shacks." Another class met in a school bus in the parking lot.

The demonstration occurred four years before Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and nine years before the sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. It set in motion events that forever changed the landscape of American education, and arguably marked the start of the modern civil rights movement.

The students didn't get a new school, at least not right away. But one of Hazel Davis's classmates became one of four lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit known as Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

Brown was only the beginning of the struggle for desegregation. In defiance of the court's decision, Virginia enacted a series of laws that came to be known as Massive Resistance. Embracing the states' rights principles of the Confederacy, the General Assembly essentially declared the Supreme Court decision null and void. The legislature passed new laws empowering the state to seize and shut down any local school system rather than submit to court-ordered integration. Another law set up state funding for private segregated schools in those localities. The state's most prominent white politicians -- ranging from U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., leader of the ruling Byrd organization, to then-Gov. J. Lindsay Almond and future governor Mills Godwin -- backed these laws, denouncing integration as "a cancer" and "a sickness in the heart." They were egged on by James J. Kilpatrick, a young conservative ideologue who championed defiance in fiery editorials for the Richmond News Leader.

Massive Resistance collapsed in 1959 under assault in state and federal courts. But Prince Edward forged on alone for five more years. The county's 1,550 white students attended a private academy financed in part with state funds, while its 1,800 black students were locked out. The county became a symbol of white intolerance and a national disgrace, until federal courts finally ordered it to reopen its schools in 1964.

Today, Prince Edward's public schools are thoroughly integrated, with about 90 percent of the county's white students enrolled in schools where the majority of students are black. But the events in Prince Edward have cast a long shadow over attempts at racial reconciliation in the Old Dominion.

For years local officials sought to ignore or bury the past. The county Board of Supervisors for a time blocked historic designation for the old Moton High School building. "We don't want this to become a race problem," then-Board Chairman Hugh Carwile declared in 1995, saying he'd much prefer to see the building demolished. "People tell me it's a constant reminder, like rubbing salt in a wound."

State officials seemed at least as ambivalent. Godwin, who went on to serve two terms as governor, steadfastly refused to apologize for his role in championing Massive Resistance, conceding only that times had changed. With the exception of a few principled oppositionists, an entire generation of white political leaders carried a blemish on their record. The state has no plans to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the struggle in Prince Edward.

But not everyone has forgotten. Earlier this year, a nonprofit organization, spurred by a group of elderly black women who are members of the Martha E. Forrester Council of Women -- some of them former teachers in the old Negro schools -- purchased the Moton building, which is now designated a National Historic Landmark. They plan to reopen it as a museum honoring its role in the civil rights movement. The Farmville Herald, once a beacon of white supremacy, now ardently supports the museum project. Folks in Farmville will mark the 50th anniversary on April 23 with a ceremony that will include a reenactment of the walkout.

The Prince Edward story is a tale of racial domination and intolerance. It demonstrates the extremes to which a fearful community will go in the name of self-preservation. But it also is a tale of courage and perseverance. And it began at Moton High School on a quiet Monday morning in the spring of 1951 with the seemingly innocent announcement of a special assembly.

M. Boyd Jones's morning was interrupted by an anonymous telephone message warning that two of his students were about to get into trouble with the law at the Greyhound bus station in town. The Moton High School principal dashed out to intervene. Shortly after he left, a note was delivered to each classroom calling for an emergency assembly. The note bore a forgery of Jones's trademark "J" signature.

The meeting started normally enough, with a senior quieting the buzz by leading students in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. But then the atmosphere abruptly changed. Instead of Jones at the lectern, there stood a member of the junior class, Barbara Rose Johns. And instead of singing the national anthem, Johns told the teachers, "I want you all out of here," pounding her shoe on a bench for emphasis. Most of the teachers were stunned to be addressed that way by a student, but they complied.

It was an audacious act for a 16-year-old. But Barbara Johns came from a family that knew something about audacity. Her uncle was a brilliant and argumentative preacher, the Rev. Vernon Johns, who was fired from his pulpit in Montgomery, Ala., because of his hell-raising sermons, only to be replaced by another radical, Martin Luther King Jr. Vernon Johns visited Prince Edward frequently, and even when he wasn't around, his imprint was, in stacks of books that Barbara dipped into after finishing her homework.

Barbara's parents were from Prince Edward, but they had moved to New York City during the Depression in search of work. She was born there in 1935. The family later moved to Washington, and Barbara was sent back to Prince Edward to live with her grandparents.

Although it lacked facilities and amenities, Moton High had that most important element -- dedicated teachers. Barbara's favorite was her music teacher, who listened patiently to her dreams and complaints. During one of their after-school talks, Barbara expressed her unhappiness with conditions at the school. The teacher replied: "Why don't you do something about it?"

The challenge made her think, Barbara would later recall. Her thoughts crystallized one day while waiting for the rattletrap bus that took her to school, when a shiny yellow bus passed by, carrying students to all-white Farmville High School.

"Right then and there," Barbara would write, "I decided, indeed, something had to be done about this inequality. I prayed for help. That night, whether in a dream or whether I was awake, a plan began to formulate in my mind. A plan that I felt was divinely inspired."

On the day of the special assembly, Barbara delivered an impassioned speech in which she reviewed the complaints about the building -- the tar-paper additions that served as overflow classrooms, the used and crumbling books, the decrepit school buses, the absence of science labs. She urged her fellow students to go on strike until the county's six white supervisors agreed to meet their demands for a new school.

The students were still in the auditorium when the principal returned from his wild goose chase. He pleaded with them to stay in school, but their fervor had been aroused. Jones left quietly, and the students finalized their plans. They then marched down the hill to the county courthouse and confronted the school superintendent with their demands.

Barbara assured the students that if they stuck together, no one would be punished. For one thing, she told them, the tiny Farmville jail was too small to hold them.

Hazel Davis went along with the strike, but she was frightened. "Until the strike, no one ever challenged," she says. "You just go along. You don't have the thing within to challenge it; you don't have the means to challenge it."

The students consulted with the Rev. Leslie Francis Griffin of the black First Baptist Church, who was known as "the fighting preacher" because of his outspokenness. He suggested they contact Oliver W. Hill of Richmond, one of the most prominent black lawyers in the state. Hill worked for the NAACP.

Hill, a Howard Law School friend of the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall, had been suing state and local governments throughout the South for years over separate and unequal facilities. He and his partner, Spottswood Robinson III, were familiar with the conditions at Moton.

Hill and Robinson had file cabinets bulging with cases and no room or appetite for more. But, as he later recalled, Barbara Johns's phone call was persuasive. He and Robinson were due to visit distant Pulaski County two days later and agreed to stop in Farmville on the way. When they did, Hill and Robinson were impressed with the young protesters and expressed a willingness to take up their case. But they had one crucial condition. The NAACP was not interested in suing the county merely to get a new, segregated high school. Hill told the students they'd have to go much further -- to insist on ending segregated schools altogether.

The strike continued until the close of the school year. White officials were quick to respond. Within a few weeks, they terminated Jones's contract, accusing him unjustly of playing a clandestine role in the walkout. At the same time, they appropriated $875,000 to build a new high school for blacks.

By then it was too late. On May 23, after hundreds of black parents had signed a petition of support, Hill and Robinson filed suit at the federal courthouse in Richmond on behalf of 117 Moton students, demanding that the Virginia law enforcing segregated schools be voided.

The case was heard by a three-judge panel in Richmond, beginning on February 25, 1952. After five days of testimony in a historic courtroom that had been the scene of the treason trials of Aaron Burr and Jefferson Davis, the judges declined to order an end to segregation. But they found that the black schools in Prince Edward County were inferior to their white counterparts and ordered that the facilities be equalized.

The NAACP appealed the ruling. Two years later the case was incorporated with three other lawsuits, from Kansas, South Carolina and Delaware, along with a similar one filed in the District of Columbia. The U. S. Supreme Court, under its new chief justice, Earl Warren, unanimously decreed on May 17, 1954, that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place."

White officials throughout the South reacted with anger and dismay. But because the high court had not prescribed a timetable to end segregation, nothing happened until a year later, when the justices issued Brown II, calling for desegregation "with all deliberate speed."

That day happened to be the deadline in Virginia for adopting county budgets. Several hundred angry whites showed up at the courthouse in Farmville, urging the supervisors not to appropriate money to operate integrated schools. The supervisors complied, but the next month, they became convinced that integration would not be ordered for the approaching school year. They reversed themselves and adopted a budget funded on a month-to-month basis. Still, as a hedge against the inevitable, 1,300 whites convened in Farmville and organized a fund for a private whites-only academy.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, the governor convened a special session of the legislature to enact a series of Massive Resistance laws. For school districts that received court orders to integrate, the laws eliminated compulsory attendance, provided funding for tuition grants to private schools and, as a last resort, authorized closing the schools.

In a special referendum on January 9, 1956, Virginia voters by a ratio of 2 to 1 approved amending the state constitution to allow the issuance of tuition grants. In Prince Edward and elsewhere in Southside Virginia, the measure passed by 4 to 1. (The state's voter rolls were almost exclusively white.)

"It's like we'd won the War Between the States," exulted the author of the plan, state Sen. Garland Gray, one of Harry F. Byrd's chief lieutenants.

Federal judges soon punctured the euphoria. By the start of the 1958-59 school year, schools in Front Royal, Charlottesville and Norfolk were under court order to integrate. In each of those areas, the state seized and closed the whites-only schools rather than allow even token integration. About 12,000 students were affected. Some of them, with the aid of state tuition grants, enrolled in hastily founded private schools similar to the one being planned in Prince Edward.

But on January 19, 1959 -- Robert E. Lee's 152nd birthday -- the segregationists' cause was hit a double blow. A three-judge federal panel ruled that closing the schools violated the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection, and the Virginia Supreme Court found that cutting off state funds to prevent integration also violated the state constitution. In some ways the state court ruling, by a 5-to-2 vote, had the greater impact in Richmond. Gov. Lindsay Almond defied Byrd, his political benefactor, by ordering public schools to reopen.

Massive Resistance was finished, as far as the state of Virginia was concerned. But whites in Prince Edward decided to go it alone.

We were a county of like-thinking people," Robert E. Taylor is saying, and when the choice came down to integrate or close the schools, the community chose the latter. "So many people were together on that. People were trying to save their children, both black and white."

Taylor is 81 now, and he's sitting in a paneled office beneath a stuffed deer head and surrounded by plaques that laud his community leadership. He makes the entire school-closing episode sound more like a matter of fate than choice. "It had to happen," he says. "We were picked as a test case. Nothing you could do. The federal government said we had to integrate and the state said we couldn't."

In fact, from the beginning, whites in Prince Edward were largely unified around the cause of preserving segregation. The Farmville Herald was a key part of the campaign, denouncing the desegregation suit as the work of "a vocal minority, craftily led, agitated by outside influences."

Herald publisher J. Barrye Wall and his son helped found the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberty, a grass-roots organization of whites dedicated to protecting the status quo. It wasn't just a question of preserving segregation, Wall editorialized, but of protecting the South from communism, the NAACP and racial "amalgamation." The Defenders saw Prince Edward as the South's first line of defense, a sentiment that Harry Byrd endorsed. "If Virginia surrenders, if Virginia's line is broken, the South will go down, too," he warned.

The Defenders officially opposed violence, and their presence prevented more extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan from getting a foothold. But opponents, black and white, were harassed in a variety of ways. Barbara Johns's family sent her to live with relatives in Alabama, after a cross was burned on the lawn. County Negro Farm Agent John Lancaster was fired from his post because he was considered too friendly with L. Francis Griffin, the activist black minister. Griffin himself was reduced to poverty when white businessmen called in his debts in a coordinated campaign, repossessing his car and shutting off shipments of heating oil to his house.

For the most part, the white community united behind Wall's strident campaign. When a handful of local business leaders, led by School Board Chairman Lester Andrews, got together to advocate keeping open the public schools, they were ostracized by other whites and branded as "integrationists."

Undeterred by the courts, Prince Edward geared up for the transition to private schools. On June 3, 1959, the supervisors announced "with the most profound regret" their decision not to appropriate money to operate public schools beginning in September.

Taylor was one of eight founders of the all-white Prince Edward Academy. He owned the construction firm that helped build it. The academy opened on September 10 with 1,475 white students, just 87 fewer than had attended the white public schools the previous year, and with all of the system's 66 white teachers hired at their old salaries. The academy did not accept the state's tuition grants in its first year, fearing they would weaken its legal position, but thousands of dollars poured in from out-of-state supporters of segregation. In December, the academy's boosters formed a fund for establishing private schools for blacks, but the effort was dropped after only one black child was registered.

Taylor is still defensive about that. "Nobody thought that we ought to keep children out of school," he says. Snapping his fingers, he adds, "I could have raised the money just like that. But the NAACP put a clamp on that. That cost the black children four years of education. We get blamed, but it was not our fault. We honestly tried to take care of the black kids, too."

But while the school closings applied equally to pupils of both races, there was nothing equal about its effect. The consequences were borne almost entirely by the county's 1,800 black students.

Hazel Davis dropped out of high school in 1952 to marry Robert Davidson. Their daughter, Shirley, was 6 years old in the fall of 1959, and excited about starting first grade. Hazel had made Shirley a pleated dress for the big day, and saw that her daughter got her polio vaccination.

The Davidsons were the only black family on their street at the northwest edge of Farmville. While their green-shingled, four-room Cape Cod lacked some of the amenities of nearby white homes -- it had no indoor plumbing, for example -- it was otherwise indistinguishable from the other modest homes in the neighborhood.

It was a point of particular pride to the Davidsons that passersby couldn't tell from the exterior that the house was occupied by blacks.

It wasn't unusual for black children and white children to play together -- black mothers often virtually raised many of the white babies -- so it was natural for Shirley to become friends with her neighbors Tommy Hubbard and Billy Lacks.

Hazel recalls that she had heard about threats by the whites to close the schools, but paid little attention because white folks were always threatening to do something drastic to demonstrate their fealty to the "Southern way of life." Even when it became obvious that the schools would not open on time that fall, Hazel assured her daughter that it was only a temporary situation. Like many other blacks in the county, Hazel recalls, she "just knew, as the weeks went by, that it was going to open. As far as doing anything about it, I just didn't feel I had any power."

Each morning, as she watched her white neighbors board a school bus at the edge of a driveway, Shirley pretended that she, too, was going to school. She put on a pretty dress -- her mother was pleased that Shirley wanted to look nice -- and with books in hand, skipped down the hill to wait for the bus. After it picked up the boys, she plopped beneath a shade tree and transported herself into a secret world of daydreams, filled with scenes in which the yellow bus stopped for her, too. She read and reread the few books that constituted the family's meager collection. She forced herself to return to the house for lunch and to help with the chores, but in mid-afternoon she resumed her sentinel post at the foot of the hill.

Shirley mimicked the way the boys carried their books -- arm extended, fingers wrapped around the covers -- because she had never seen a girl go off to school and she didn't know she was supposed to cradle the books to her chest. On days when she got carried away with her reading and her daydreaming, she would still be sitting beneath the tree when the bus brought Tommy and Billy back in the afternoon.

When Shirley walked back to her house, as if she too were returning from school, her mother would ask, "Where you been?" Shirley would answer, "Oh, been playing school."

As word of the school closings spread, a number of individuals and organizations came to Farmville to help the displaced black students. Foremost among them was the American Friends Service Committee, the social service branch of the Quakers. The committee dispatched field workers to assist local black ministers and the NAACP in setting up "freedom schools." The idea was to prevent the children from falling behind during what almost everyone believed would be a short period of white bravado.

Because the books and supplies used at Moton and other black schools were stored in the padlocked buildings, the centers had to rely on donations, which came from as far away as New York and Massachusetts. Many of the unemployed black teachers were hired as instructors. They held classes in the basements of black churches throughout the county.

Even at the start, when spirits were highest, the freedom schools enrolled only about 650 pupils, one-third of the displaced black pupils. Several hundred others commuted to schools in nearby counties, or were shipped off to live with relatives out of state. But most of the black children remained at home.

The challenge of teaching children at home, or in makeshift schools, was daunting. The situation worsened when black teachers found jobs elsewhere, leaving few qualified persons as instructors.

By midsummer 1960, Quaker social worker Jean Fairfax became alarmed about what was going to happen to the locked-out black children, as it became clear that the public schools were not going to open for yet another year. She started calling friends and contacts across the country, pleading for them to find families to take in the students. Dozens responded, from Massachusetts to Iowa, and in less than a month she had secured hosts for 47 students. The number eventually reached 70.

Prince Edward students who never had been far beyond the borders of the county wound up living with families in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia, and in smaller cities and college towns throughout the country. More children could have been placed except for the reluctance of parents, many of whom had never been out of the county themselves, to allow them to be sent so far from home.

James E. Ghee Jr. was sent to Iowa City, Iowa, where he lived with the family of a University of Iowa economics professor whose wife, a Japanese American, had been interned in a relocation camp during World War II. She, too, had been rescued by Quakers, who had sent her to live with a family in Chicago. She saw taking in a Prince Edward child as a way to repay the Quakers.

Moses Scott wound up in Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb, where he lived with a Jewish family in which both parents were Holocaust survivors. Like the host family in Iowa, Moses's hosts took every step to make him feel at home. They not only treated Moses like a member of their family, but moved into the basement so that he could have their master bedroom.

Carlton Terry was 12 when he was locked out of school. "I eventually got to the point where I hated whites," he recalls. "All I knew was that I wasn't in school and I knew the reason why. I realized that the legal system was not working, at least not working for me. I remember sitting at home, watching 'Amos 'n' Andy' on TV, shellshocked. I read the newspaper every day to see what would happen."

After a year, the Quakers sent him to school in Massachusetts. Terry, now 54, went on to earn degrees from Antioch College and Princeton University, and became a Foreign Service officer for the Agency for International Development in Kenya.

"I don't know why I'm not bitter," he says. "My cousin Thelma hates Virginia with a passion. I only lost one year, and I feel like I was hurt. But imagine what it must be like for those who lost four or five years, or never went back.

"I'm surprised that no one said, 'Listen, this is madness.' Why did it take so long? Why would Virginia allow that to happen? I can't understand how America let that go on."

There was virtually no communication between blacks and whites during the five years that the schools were closed. Each side continued its separate way in a place where everything imaginable was segregated -- at the drive-in movie, whites parked on one side, blacks on the other. The Rev. Douglas Goodwin, a new black pastor who moved to Farmville in May 1963, said then that he was "struck by how complacent both sides were. The grown-up Negroes were complacent even without any schools for their children. The whites say hello cheerfully on the streets but won't talk about serious issues."

"We're a courteous people. Our people have always talked back and forth," Mayor William F. Watkins Jr. boasted to an out-of-town reporter that same year.

But the civility ended abruptly that summer when groups of Northern college students and black members of the newly organized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee flocked to Farmville to tutor black children and help organize a boycott of white businesses. For several months that summer, demonstrators paraded up and down Main Street, while smaller groups staged sit-ins at popular restaurants or tried to worship in the town's white churches.

One Sunday, outside Farmville Baptist Church, a bastion of white supremacy, demonstrators knelt in prayer and song after being denied admittance. As police carried six adults and 15 juveniles to the court-house next door, a member of the congregation scolded the arrestees, saying that if they were true Christians they would not deny to others their right to worship.

Demonstrators also showed up that day at three other white churches. They were admitted to one, Johns Memorial Episcopal, where Gordon Moss, chief academic officer of Longwood College, invited seven young blacks to sit in his pew. Dean Moss's support of integration cost him his place on the church's vestry and was believed to be a factor in his being passed over for the presidency of the teachers college.

Whites remained outspoken in their contempt for the protesters and in their defiant confidence of the outcome. One of them boasted to a reporter, "When we closed the public schools four years ago, you said we would never do it. Well, we showed you."

For as long as it could, Washington took little notice of the calamity in Prince Edward. Pleas to the Eisenhower administration went unheeded, and the Kennedy administration in its early days focused its attention on violent reactions to integration in Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere.

Just before Christmas 1962, however, the Justice Department joined the NAACP as a friend of the court in its appeal of the Prince Edward case. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy argued that the federal courts had the power to require the county to levy taxes to operate desegregated public schools, notwithstanding arguments by the county and state that the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars lawsuits against states.

Then in a special message to Congress on civil rights in February 1963, President Kennedy urged a speedy resolution of the legal issues and promised remedial aid for the students when the schools reopened. He pledged to "fulfill the constitutional objective of an equal, non-segregated educational opportunity for all children."

Bobby Kennedy kept up the pressure. Speaking on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, the president's brother noted "with as much sadness as irony that outside of Africa south of the Sahara, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak [Borneo], British Honduras -- and Prince Edward County."

With pressure mounting, a temporary solution was crafted: A private school open to all students would operate until the public schools reopened. Foundations, businesses and individuals from around the country contributed $1 million for the Prince Edward County Free School. Neil V. Sullivan, a superintendent with a national reputation for innovation, took leave from his school district on Long Island and recruited a multiracial faculty from around the country.

On September 16, 1963, a full four years after the public schools had been padlocked, Shirley Davidson finally got to ride a school bus. She was among 1,520 students -- only four of them white -- who jammed four schools that were provided rent-free by the county.

Hazel had taught Shirley reading and math, and she was well prepared academically. But she quickly discovered she had a lot to learn. She noticed that the girls who had been to school before carried their books cradled in their arms. And when she wandered into the wrong rest room, she was puzzled by a row of strange fixtures that she later was told were urinals.

Neil Sullivan observed that during the opening exercises none of the children knew to salute the flag, and that when the national anthem was played in a music class, no one recognized it. Finally, one child said, "I know, it's the baseball song."

Sullivan announced that "our first task will be a mass attack on reading skills," but he confided to an interviewer that "four years' loss will never be made up entirely. All I've said is that we'll narrow the gap."

In the spring of 1964, Bobby Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, visited Farmville and accepted a package tied with a red, white and blue bow that contained 9,964 pennies Shirley and the other Free School students had collected as a gift to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library. Two weeks after the Kennedys' visit, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Prince Edward to reopen and desegregate its schools.

The May 25, 1964, ruling came 10 years and eight days after Brown.

Although the public schools were to open in the fall, the operators of the Prince Edward Academy attempted one last hurrah on behalf of state-supported segregation.

In June, the county's supervisors appropriated $180,000 to operate the public schools for the coming year. But they appropriated an equal amount for tuition grants for the academy. One month later, anticipating that a federal judge would issue an injunction the next day to block distribution of the grant money, the supervisors held an unannounced, all-night session.

More than 700 parents of academy students, who had been tipped off about the meeting, gathered at the town armory at 2 a.m. There the board doled out 1,250 grants for a total of $180,000 -- nearly half the $375,000 that the supervisors had appropriated for schools for the new term.

Robert Taylor still recalls the scheme with amusement. There was so much excitement that night, Taylor says, "you would have thought an atomic bomb went off."

Once the checks were cut, the academy parents rushed to one of the town's three banks, which opened early "so everyone could deposit them before a new court order could stop them," Taylor recalls.

Two years later, a federal appeals court ruled that the six supervisors were personally responsible for seeing the money was returned. Because some of the academy parents refused or were unable to repay, the supervisors did everything but hold bake sales to come up with money. By the spring of 1967, with the fund still $68,000 short, the supervisors, "with considerable reluctance," sued the parents who had not repaid the grants.

Prince Edward's public schools finally reopened on September 8, 1964. A faculty of 69 black and nine white teachers welcomed 1,500 students, all but eight of them black. Elementary pupils were grouped by what they knew rather than by age in hopes that some of the black children could complete more than one grade level in the first year. A few, like Shirley Davidson, were promoted right away, after tests showed that she was just one year behind where she would have been had the schools not been closed.

Moton High students file past a temporary building in 1953. ( Hank Walker - Timepix)

But some of the older black children dropped out or never returned, believing they were too old to learn. They became part of what one observer called a "crippled generation."

Funeral director Carl U. Eggleston, who was in second grade when the schools closed and in 1984 became the first black elected to the Farmville Town Council, says, "Even today, there's some folks who can't read or write and were never able to get a decent job."

Nearly all of the 70 "Quaker kids" graduated from high school, including several who returned to Prince Edward once the schools reopened. Most went on to college, earning degrees from schools such as Harvard, Iowa, Howard, Hampton, Virginia Tech, Antioch and Berea, and graduate degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Boston, Indiana and Virginia. Several became teachers, and a few became preachers.

One of the girls, Mattie Paige, returned to Farmville and in the mid-1990s was elected to the Town Council, where one council member was the former police chief who had arrested a number of the "Quaker kids" three decades earlier.

James Ghee, who had been a C-student at Moton, did so well at Iowa City High School, where he was one of only three blacks in a class of 1,000, that he wound up being an honor roll student and state champion debater, a record that earned him a four-year scholarship to the University of Iowa.

By the time Ghee graduated from Iowa in 1970, the pace of integration had stepped up enough back home that he was able to enroll in law school at the University of Virginia, after which he returned to Farmville as the county's first black lawyer.

Moses Scott also made the honor roll, at Newton High School outside Boston, where his teachers urged him to try for Harvard. He didn't think he was ready for the Ivy League, so he went instead to Howard University, where he earned a degree in mathematics and physics. After four years in the Army, a newly confident Scott returned to Boston and earned a master's degree from Harvard Business School. He now is an executive with IBM in New York.

Although the blacks had won in court, they failed to win the hearts of their white neighbors. The Prince Edward Academy continued to attract whites, though it suffered a major setback when it had to raise tuition high enough that some of the poorer white families were forced to switch back to the public schools. A larger setback occurred in the 1980s, when the Internal Revenue Service briefly revoked its tax-exempt status because it was continuing to discriminate against blacks.

The academy eventually admitted a handful of black children, most of them nonresidents of Prince Edward County. Still, whites drifted back to the public schools over the years, either for economic reasons or because Prince Edward's school system gained a reputation for having better facilities and teachers than the academy. But for many blacks, the wounds never quite healed.

A few years ago at a reunion of the Eaneses, a black family with 21 children, nearly all of whom had been affected by the school closings, Sylvia Eanes, who was in the third grade when the schools were closed, said she was placed in the eighth grade when they reopened, as though she had been in school all along. "The teachers just pushed us through, wanted us out," she recalled. After graduation, Sylvia didn't think she could spell well enough to pass the test to fulfill her goal of becoming a licensed practical nurse. She settled for a factory job.

An older brother, McCarthy, who drove a school bus for white children during the closings, was 21 when he returned to school, and 22 when he graduated. "Mac" was drafted and sent to Vietnam. "My country called me to fight in Vietnam," he recalled, "but wouldn't let me go to school."

At the Hampden-Sydney forum, the tension quickly dissipated as Willie Shepperson and Ray Moore met just offstage. Shepperson grabbed Moore's hand and guided him to the lectern as applause broke out.

"This is a new day," Shepperson declared, adding that after his chance meeting with Moore the day before, "I decided that this circle [of hate and distrust] had to be broken. The line had to be taken out of the sand. And I felt it had to begin with me."

"Every generation leaves for its children problems they created," continued Shepperson, a regional director at the Washington headquarters of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. "We have a moral duty to at least make a foundation for them so they won't make the same mistakes we made."

"I welcome Dr. Moore as a brother in this community and I hope he welcomes me as a brother."

Moore saluted Shepperson. "I am a changed person," Moore told the audience. "I was converted when I heard the eloquence of his words on this platform and the commendable distance that he placed between himself and what I know is a dark anger still hidden deep in his soul."

Shepperson replied: "We have decided that we will work together and, as a symbol of that agreement, Dr. Moore has agreed to make a substantial contribution" to the civil rights museum planned for Moton High School.

As people approached the lectern, one after another, to express or accept apologies, the symposium took on the sights and sounds of a religious revival. Most of those who spoke for the white community weren't the original perpetrators of the school closures, but rather their children.

Marcie Wall-Wolfe is an attorney and former member of the school board in Williamsburg. Her grandfather was J. Barrye Wall, the Farmville Herald publisher who led the campaign to preserve segregation, and her father was J. Barrye Wall Jr., attorney for both the newspaper and the foundation that operated the Prince Edward Academy. She told the crowd that if her father were alive today, "he would say, 'I'm sorry I took your future away.' "

Wall-Wolfe, who was just 2 years old when the schools were closed, then walked across the stage and hugged Shepperson.

A 1964 graduate of the Prince Edward Academy, Sam Putney, recalled his anger at the desperate attempt by his parents' generation to preserve a way of life that he had no desire to continue. "I wanted to pin someone against the wall, I wanted to hold someone responsible," said Putney. The county had "turned its back on all its children, black and white."

Putney, a real estate appraiser in Roanoke, said he marveled at the sense of reconciliation he felt from blacks at the conference. "It's difficult to understand forgiveness by people who have every right to be angry, accusatory and bitter, but I don't see it."

Charlotte Womack, her eyes glistening with tears, echoed Putney's words. Womack, who had been sent out of town to continue her schooling, pleaded: "Don't make anyone else pay for those years."

As they listened, Hazel Miser and her daughter, Shirley, also fought back tears. During her senior year at Prince Edward High School, from which she graduated in 1972, Shirley married Melvin Eanes -- one of the 21 Eanes children. He and Shirley have two grown children, one of whom graduated from James Madison University, the other from a technical school.

Then at age 40, Shirley enrolled at Longwood College, from which she graduated in 1997 with a degree in elementary education. She now teaches second grade -- at the Prince Edward Elementary School in Farmville.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company