Before Brown: Prince Edward and the 'lost generation'

While Albemarle's five-month school closing made local headlines, what happened just two counties south of here made international news in 1959.

Five years later, when Robert Kennedy was the U.S. attorney general, he famously remarked that Prince Edward County was the only place in the western hemisphere without public education.

Prince Edward and its Robert Russa Moton High School earned several dubious distinctions in the 1950s:

- The school was built in 1939 to accommodate 180 students. By 1951, enrollment was 456.

- The most frequently student-used adjective to describe it was "deplorable."

- To relieve the crowding, three temporary tarpaper shacks were put up, heated by potbelly stoves, with no running water and no bathrooms– and the bathrooms in the original school were designed for 180 students.

- And, most tellingly, Prince Edward shut its schools for five years rather than integrate them in accordance with Brown v. Board of Education.

The lawsuit against Prince Edward, Davis v. Board of Education, was one of five that were consolidated into Brown. One thing differentiated the Prince Edward case.

"We were the only case that was student-led," says John Stokes, who, as class president, was one of the strike leaders. "The others were initiated by adults."

Speaking at the recent Festival of the Book, Stokes described how students initiated a strike after their parents struck out with the county school board. The students decided to walk out in what Stokes said the students called their own "Manhattan Project."

Utter secrecy governed their meetings, according to Stokes, until the big day: April 23, 1951. A ruse sent the Moton principal to the bus station to round up some allegedly truant students, and the strike began, led by Barbara Rose Johns, niece of civil rights leader the Rev. Vernon Johns.

The entire student body walked out. Their cause, Stokes pointed out, wasn't integration. "It was for equality," he said. "If they'd given us a new building, I wouldn't be standing here today," he told the Festival audience.

During their two-week strike, the student leaders tried to get NAACP lawyers to push for equal facilities.

"The decision of the NAACP lawyers was, we're not taking anymore equalization suits," says Amy Tillerson of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. They said, "Unless you want to integrate, we won't take the case."

On May 23, 1951, the NAACP filed Davis v. Board of Education. The case could have been enshrined in American history books– if the lead plaintiff's name had started with the letter A.

"It was 'Brown' because the plaintiffs were organized alphabetically," says Foundation head Rob Vaughan. "And if there hadn't been a Brown from Topeka, it would have been Davis from Prince Edward County."

The May 17, 1954, Supreme Court decision upholding Brown was only a milestone in Prince Edward's journey toward integration, which didn't happen until 10 years later.

Tillerson, a Prince Edward native, is too young to be a member of the "lost generation" deprived of public schools from 1959 to 1964. But her grandfather suffered.

"After the first year," she recounts, "he said, 'I have six kids. We can't stay here.'" He had to rent a house in Cumberland while paying real estate taxes in Prince Edward.

Ironically, the county government used tax money for vouchers to supplement tuitions at Prince Edward Academy, a hastily formed private school open only to whites.

"People lost emotionally," says Tillerson. "They lost self-esteem, especially if you were 13 when the schools closed and 18 when they reopened." She says many felt their only option was to join the military– just in time for the Vietnam War.

It was a loss, says Tillerson, "that spans generations."

Students at the Robert R. Moton High School walked out in 1951 to protest their substandard education and facilities. Note the tarpaper shacks to the far left.

Fifty-three years ago, Johns Stokes was a leader in the student walkout that became part of Brown v. Board of Education.