Natural disasters have closed schools over the past century. Earthquakes and hurricanes destroyed Christchurch, New Zealand (2011) and New Orleans (2005). The Influenza pandemic in 1918-1919, polio epidemics in the 1940s, and currently the coronavirus-19 have achieved the same result in country after country across the globe.
In a nation were supreme faith in the power of schooling to produce individual success, where getting an “education” is the first item on the to-do list of native-born and immigrant families, sudden and sustained school closures carry huge psychic and social costs for both students and their families.
Short-term effects on children and youth range from “summer loss” in academic achievement to distaste for online instruction to angst and depression from prolonged lockdowns and absence of contact with friends. Effects on students and families are unrecorded for previous epidemics and are just now becoming apparent, particularly for single Moms and families with two working parents.
Long-term effects of these natural disasters remain unknown. And this is why the five year loss of public schooling for black students in Prince Edward County as a result of a man-made disaster–while far longer than school closures flowing from the pandemic–becomes relevant as a historical instance of learning what happens later to children and youth when they have lost five years of their schooling.
In 1951, in rural Prince Edward County, Virginia, Robert Moton high school student Barbara Johns led a walkout of black students protesting the conditions in the overcrowded building (housing 450 students rather than less than the 200 it was built for). This neglected, racially segregated high school in Farmville–the County seat of about 8500 residents–was not only at double its capacity but also lacked a library, science labs, and cafeteria.
“We held two or three classes in the auditorium most of the time, one on the stage and two in the back,” former Moton principal M. Boyd Jones told journalist Bob Smith in 1961. “We even held some classes in a bus.” Some classes met in tar-paper shacks, which the school board funded rather then build a new school. When it rained those shacks leaked, and when it got cold the potbelly stoves failed to keep children warm.
Teacher Vanessa Venable recalled students searching the woods before class for kindling to use in the shacks’ stoves to heat the buildings. In an interview Venable said, “I remember asking the Superintendent for toilet tissues for the outdoor john. He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, ‘Mrs. Venable, they don’t know how to use it anyway. Get a Sears catalogue.'”
The high school was indeed separate but hardly equal to the all-white high school also located in Farmville.
After the walkout, civil rights lawyers convinced the black parents who had sued the all-white County school board to join black litigants in Topeka, Kansas and other jurisdictions in a case that was moving toward the U.S. Supreme Court called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown that state laws establishing separate schools on the basis of race were unconstitutional. While the Court urged states to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed,” many Southern states (including Virginia) where de jure school segregation and Jim Crow laws had been in existence for over a half-century did little to nothing in the aftermath of the decision (see here and here).
Virginia’s response orchestrated by Democratic Senator Harry Byrd’s political machine, a long-time advocate of segregated schools, launched “massive resistance” to the court decision. The Virginia legislature, controlled by the Byrd machine, threatened to stop funding any county or city district in the state that desegregated its schools.
In 1959, federal and state courts declared “massive resistance” to the Brown decision unconstitutional. For the first time, a Democratic governor refused to support pro-segregation bills moving through the legislature. Then a federal district court judge ordered the Prince Edward County school board to move students from the all-black Robert Russa Moton high school to the nearby all-white high school. The all-white County school Board of Supervisors joining the state movement toward “massive resistance” refused to fund the public schools. The School Board then closed all of its schools and funded and built a private all-white academy. On the first day of the fall semester, yellow school buses took nearly 1500 white students to the private academy and left 1700 black students without a school to go to.
The public schools did not re-open until 1963.
Part 2 deals with the effects on black students of no public schooling for five years.