Davis v. County School Board

Tar paper school building in virginia that led to student strikes.
Tar paper buildings that were part of the inferior Robert Russa Moton highschool led to a student strike of more than 400 students. This resulted in the NAACP taking up their case.

courtesy photo

The Commonwealth of Virginia was no stranger to racial tensions. For many African Americans it dates to 1619 when the privateer ship, The White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort, Va., carrying human beings as cargo for sale. This started a cycle of discrimination that was nearly impossible to escape from. From enslavement to emancipation, incarceration to equalization, for African Americans progressing in society was slow and it seemed like two steps forward, one step back.

Despite the challenges, people of color pushed forward in Virginia regardless. Over the centuries Virginia had seen its share of protests and challenges by people of color who were demanding equality. However, it wasn’t until a boycott by African Americans of segregation in street cars in Richmond, Va., that lasted two years in the early 20th century that laws were passed in Virginia transforming what were once just accepted practices into official segregation of public facilities. Though organized and willing to push back, the African American population in Richmond didn’t yet have the resources in the legal community to commit to an all-out confrontation with the state legislature.

Around the same time, the only way an African American student in Virginia could receive a high school diploma was attending a private academy. These academies were largely operated by churches around the state. Public schools for Black students were elementary schools only reaching the eighth grade, operated primarily by county school boards. Since most of the schools were associated with county school boards, rather than cities and towns, meant they had a relatively rural population of students attending most school districts.

Prince Edward County’s public schools were considered relatively progressive, compared with their neighboring districts. This was thanks mainly to fundraising efforts by the Farmville Colored Women’s Club. They were able to aid in the addition of grades 9-12 being added to the Robert Russa Moton High School. Originally constructed in 1938 to house 180 students and alleviate overcrowding, students flocked to the facility from neighboring districts for a better education and the population soon swelled to over 450 students by 1951. To keep pace with the growing population, tar paper shacks were constructed to house the students.

Reverend Francis Griffin wanted to use his position was the President of the local NAACP chapter and Chair of the Robert Russa Moton High School PTA to leverage a deal with the school board to build a new facility for the ever-increasing number of students. However, his request fell on deaf ears, and the school board took no action for several months.

Frustrated with the overcrowding and inaction of the school board the students themselves decided to act. April 23rd, 1951, the school principal, M. Boyd Jones, was called away on a false claim of racial problems at the bus station downtown, and Moton teachers received notes to bring their classes to the auditorium. After the students had gathered, a committee of students, led by sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns, asked the teachers to leave.

The committee had called the students together so they could address their classmates. Johns discussed the inadequate conditions and mistreatment they suffered through indifference by county school officials. She swayed the students to march out onto the school grounds, and strike in front of the school until county officials agreed to build a new school building.

Barbara was the niece of Vernon Johns, an outspoken activist who had been the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from 1947 until 1952, just two years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be selected as the new head pastor of the same church. Despite being in Montgomery, Ala., at the time, many people reported that Vernon Johns gave students advice and counsel during the protest.

For two weeks, more than 450 students protested their conditions while Barbara Johns and Carrie Stokes, a fellow student, pleaded for assistance from the NAACP branch office in Richmond, Va. And meeting with the school superintendent to make their demands. NAACP Attorneys Spottswood Robinson III and Oliver Hill responded to the students, telling them they would act on the students’ behalf only if they could garner their parents support and were willing to challenge the constitutionality of segregation itself, not just lobby for a new school. The students agreed and returned to school May 7, 1951.

After a few weeks of preparation, Robinson and Hill filed suit on behalf of one hundred seventeen students who were willing to sign on to the court case on May 23, 1951. Despite Johns being one of the fundamental forces behind the strike, the case was instead named after Dorothy E. Davis, the first name to appear on the petition.

Robinson was called to assist on another case, but Hill stayed on to argue the Davis v. County Schoolboard of Prince Edward County case. Hill argued that the conditions the students were forced to endure were unequal and unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The county officials had hired the best attorneys they could find in Richmond, Va., and they were in turn assisted by the state Attorney General, J. Lindsay Almond. They would argue that segregation was core to Virginia’s way of life, and that the district was empowered to segregate under the Plessy Decision.

A three-judge panel at the U.S. District Court unanimously rejected the NAACP’s argument stating, "We have found no hurt or harm to either race." They ruled in favor of segregation, however they ordered the school board to ‘equalize’ the Robert Russa Moton High School.

The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who consolidated the case alongside Brown v. Board and three others. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling and ordered desegregation, white Virginians launched a campaign of massive resistance. The Board of Supervisors for Prince Edward County refused to appropriate any funds for the County School Board for the period 1959-1964, effectively closing the public schools rather than integrate them. Prince Edward County schools remained closed for five years.

African American Experience Fund

The mission of the African American Experience Fund of the National Park Foundation is to preserve African American history by supporting education programs in National Parks that celebrate African American history and culture. There are 26 National Parks identified by the African American Experience Fund:

Last updated: April 11, 2024

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