That the 2020 pandemic closed public venues including schools for three to six months across 13,000 districts in the country startled American families upending familiar daily routines. Most Moms and Dads had never experienced such a turnabout in their daily lives. Then many Americans learned of earlier influenza and polio epidemics when public officials closed schools during the first half of the 20th century.
But the vast majority of Americans know next to nothing about a Virginia county in 1959 that shut down its public schools until 1963.
That is what happened in Prince Edward County when an all-white school board, refusing a court order to desegregate, shuttered its schools and using public funds for vouchers and tax credits created a private white-only academy for students. That decision left black children and youth with no access to public elementary and secondary schooling for five years.
What did black families do when the doors to their schools were locked?
Black leaders, parents, students, and a few whites protested. The white-controlled Board of Supervisors and the County Board of Education, nonetheless, kept the schools closed.
Some families sent their sons and daughters to relatives elsewhere in Virginia where at least segregated schools were open, to families in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and on the East coast. Other parents, including some whites, dug deep in their pockets and funded small, part-time schools taught by volunteers meeting in churches and homes. Most black students, however, did not attend any school until the 1964 school year. They stayed home. Many worked in the tobacco fields with their parents.
The federal government finally got involved after the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Attorney General Robert Kennedy took immediate interest in the situation. He said:
We may observe with much sadness and irony that, outside of Africa, south of the Sahara, where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”
Robert Kennedy assigned Department of Justice officials to find ways to open County schools to black children and youth. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court found the vouchers that the Prince Edward County Board of Education issued to only white families to pay tuition to the private Academy were unconstitutional.
Federal officials then founded the Prince Edward Country Free Association of Schools. They needed one million dollars to provide schooling for black children and youth for one year. Because of missing years of schooling, students had reading and math levels scattered across the grades. The new schools would have to be ungraded so that students could move from one level to another after mastering content and skills.
Funded by donations from black and white families in other parts of the U.S., and foundation grants led to the creation of a high school and elementary/middle school housed in the previously all-black Robert Moton High School. A newly installed superintendent, Neil Sullivan who had led an affluent suburb near New York City and knew about non-graded schools, called for teachers around the country to staff these federally-run schools; dozens from all parts of the country volunteered. He assembled a biracial board of trustees and a similarly integrated faculty. As one account put it:
On Monday, September 16, 1963,the Free Schools opened and greeted 1,578 students,including four white students. The new student body took their education very seriously and in one instance refused to go home when the water supply from their school broke leaving them with no bathrooms. The students volunteered to just go in the woods rather than miss more school. The students faced an immense challenge catching up. Many of them had little instruction or opportunities to practice skills while the schools were closed for four long years. Many students and teachers got to school early, stayed late and even met on the weekends to try to catch up. Meanwhile, both students and staff were harassed on a regular basis by white supremacists but nothing would stop them from getting their education.
And many black students never returned to school. They found jobs in the fields, joined the military, got married and had families. Others were so far behind when schools re-opened that they came for a short time and dropped out. One journalist interviewed middle-aged janitors and tenant farmers in 2004 who had missed school decades earlier and found some whose futures were crippled by illiteracy.
Academic studies tracked former students into middle-age to determine the socioeconomic and political costs these men and women paid as a result of the school closure. Researchers looked at income levels, job histories, voting practices, and other indicators and compared those who could not attend school at all with those who received some schooling during the shutdown . Outcomes for the unschooled over decades showed dramatic differences with those Prince Edward students who had attended schools elsewhere (see here, here, and here).
School closures, then, is an instance of a man-made disaster quite different from natural disasters like the current Covid-19 pandemic. No hurricane or viral spread caused the Prince Edward County to shutter its schools. Racial rancor did.
Major differences between natural and man-made disasters are earmarks of the Prince Edward County story. The length of time out of school in the Virginia county differs with current estimates of months lost to American children rather than years. The power of schooling to affect adult earnings, behaviors, and civic actions becomes highlighted by this exceptional example. Looking to the past dredges up important instances when man-made disasters took a grave toll on one group of Americans.
In 2020, there are three schools in the still rural Prince Edward County–an elementary, a middle school, and a high school. Ranked in the bottom half of the state in academic performance, the district has just over 2,000 students. Black enrollment is 64 percent (2017).