The Ambassadors REVIEW
Closing Doors, Opening Doors: Fifty Years After the
School-Closing in Prince Edward County, Virginia
William J. vanden Heuvel
Deputy US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, 1979-1981
US Permanent Representative to the
European Office of the United Nations, 1977-1979
he bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln has given our country an opportunity to
remember the brutal conflict that almost destroyed the Republic.
In its own
way, the event we recall today—the closing of the public schools of Prince
Edward County in 1959—was a last battle of the Civil War.
History marked this County.
On April 7, 1865, Robert E. Lee, knowing that defeat was imminent, rested here briefly
before his final retreat. On April 8, the next day, Ulysses Grant, in pursuit, was in Prince
Edward County. He dispatched a note to his adversary. They agreed to meet at the
Appomattox Court House the next day. And so on April 9, 1865, the Civil War was ended
by its most illustrious commanders. Ulysses Grant became President of the United States.
Robert E. Lee devoted the last five years of his life to efforts to “lead the young men in
peace” and he gave this advice to southern parents: “Forget local animosities. Teach your
sons to be Americans.” It took a very long time for that message to reach the White
establishment of Virginia and in particular Prince Edward County. The racial, political,
economic, cultural struggle that defined the Civil War found its last echoes in the voices of
those who invented “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s decisions on desegrega-
tion and who fought bitterly over the role and future of the public schools of this County.
In 1959 Prince Edward County had almost 16,000 residents. More than half of the
farm owners were White, but the majority of the 6,000 tenant and farm workers were
African-American. Twelve hundred farms averaging about 120 acres in size and carved out
of the County’s heavily wooded hills had tobacco as its major crop.
Prince Edward was
regarded as part of the “Black Belt,” the name given those areas of the South where the
African-American population approached or exceeded 50 percent. Many of its families
dated to pre-Revolutionary times.
On April 23, 1951, the students at the Robert R. Moton High School—all African-
American—went on strike to protest the overcrowded, leaky, badly heated buildings that
had been erected as temporary facilities but then had acquired a distressing permanence.
The NAACP, in a search led by its counsel, Thurgood Marshall, was looking for situations
which could be developed into Civil Rights cases to challenge the constitutionality of
segregation and overturn the doctrine of Separate but Equal established by the Supreme
Court in Plessey v. Ferguson
decided in 1896. Barbara Johns, the 16 year old student who
led the protest at the Robert Moton School, was the niece of Vernon Johns, an early and
inspirational advocate of desegregation. The picketing students were insisting on better