I am a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College. It is the oldest of the remaining men's colleges in the nation (Morehouse College and Wabash College are the other two), having been established in 1775. When I arrived my freshman year, all I knew about Prince Edward County, Virginia was that my uncle (by marriage) grew up in the county seat of Farmville. I was shocked to learn that it was the same county that decided to close its entire school system between 1959 and 1964 to resist integration.
It was the students of R. R. Moton High School who set the events in motion that would alter permanently the history of that small slice of Southside Virginia. In 1951, Barbara Johns organized a student strike, to protest the horrible conditions at Moton, which the school board refused to ameliorate. I think it's important to note that the original intent of the strike was not to seek integration; it was to force the county to uphold the fallacy of separate but equal. Yet, there was a decision made to sue to integrate the schools. The Davis v. County School Board case was added to the cases that comprised the landmark Brown v. Board of Edcuation decision of 1954.
The closing of the schools in Prince Edward County was a part of what was called massive resistance, an effort to thwart integration. When it was clear that the schools had to be integrated, the county closed all schools. Those whites with enough money were able to send their children to Prince Edward Academy (now known as the Fuqua School, which did not integrate until 1986). Everyone else, regardless of color, had to seek other options for an education.
One can imagine the impact that decision had on this small community, even I could tell, once I knew the truth. During my time at Hampden-Sydney, I asked some of the black workers at the college what that time was like. One lady who worked in the dining hall told me that she went to stay with relatives in Massachusetts to finish her secondary education. Others went to stay with relatives in surrounding counties, and some simply never finished school. Most of the professors that I talked with arrived at Hampden-Sydney after the schools re-opened. I think it's time to find out exactly the actions of the college during that time.
Let me stop here. One of the best aspects of historic preservation is that one has an opportunity to visit historic places that have been preserved, and the R. R. Moton High School, a National Historic Landmark, is a museum that is open to the public. The story of the school and of integration's aftermath in the county needs to be better known. And I strongly urge folks to take a visit.
Every time I go back for an event at H-SC, I think about the lives (regardless of race) damaged by a move that was nothing more than a self inflicted wound. Only now does it seem that the community is willing to open up about those events that happened not too long ago.