CHAPTER 10. CLOSING THE SCHOOLS IN PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY
I started teaching in Farmville in 1957. This was near the end of my friendship with Vernon Johns. I only saw him briefly during this period of time.
How I got into the school teaching business came about in this way. One day a fellow, who lived down the road from me, came by the house and said, "You want a job? They need several teachers in the county. I'm going down to apply. Come on and go with me."
I had never thought of teaching, but then, I had never thought of farming either. So, after only the briefest of consideration, I agreed to go with my friend. The upshot was that, after the most superficial examination, both of us were hired. (One got the feeling that the school administration really did not care how well or how poorly prepared were the personnel for the black schools.) I was assigned to teach French and Latin at the high school. I took the job with the understanding that it was for one year only. The school was looking for someone better qualified than me. (A difficult job since salaries in the county were so low.)
Now, about French. I had taken several courses in that language in high school and in college, but I was never an apt student. I knew just enough French to squeak by and my pronunciation was terrible. So I utilized the "stay two pages ahead of the students" method. I may have been a shade more proficient in Latin, which I had always liked because the basis of whatever knowledge I had of English came about through the Latin courses I had taken in high school and college.
As I said, I had never dreamed that I would be a teacher any more than I had dreamed of being a farmer. But, as I saw it, the advantages in teaching were enormous. Teaching took me out of the cornfield, away from the constant drudgery of farm labor. And then too, it made it possible for me to interact with other people near my age and expand my circle of acquaintances, thus offsetting to some degree the loneliness of my existence on the farm.
And then too, I could buy a car. This was of paramount importance. A car would give me a greater degree of freedom. I had a truck. It was a big two-ton farm truck, but that was hardly the vehicle to go a-courting in. It was loud, so that no late-at-night sneaking around was possible. And, besides, it didn't quite lend itself to the romantic visions I had in mind. And so, my first act, once I had the teaching contract in hand, was to buy a car, which gave me that tremendous sense of freedom and mobility for which I had so longed.
Now about teaching. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed teaching itself. I enjoyed the kids and I liked most of the other teachers with whom I had contact. As that first year drew to a close, and my job neared its end, I was not too worried because I knew that, since I had earned a "satisfactory" rating, if there were other openings, I would be considered. Sure enough, during the summer, the principal of a school in Cumberland County came to see if I was interested in working in his school. I accepted eagerly, although it meant a thirty-three mile drive to work each day.
In my new situation, I was assigned to a fifth grade class and here I found my niche. Fifth graders, usually about ten years old, are a joy to work with. I enjoyed teaching them and I remember, even now, many of those kids and the pleasures they afforded me.
Cumberland County is one of the poorest counties in Virginia. There was not at that time, and for all I know there is still not even today, a single industry in the county. Many of the black residents farmed. Some worked away from home, while a few worked in Farmville. Many of the patrons of our school were desperately poor.
One experience illustrates how near destitution were some of the families whose kids were in our school. One day a girl, who had been absent for more than a week, returned to school. She brought no note nor did she attempt to explain her absence. So, I asked her, "Where have you been? Why have you been absent for so long?" (Teachers were expected to encourage good attendance for the stipend from the state was based on daily attendance.) She replied, "Mr. Powell, I didn't have any shoes to wear." How I wished I had a hole to crawl in!
Over the years, I learned that country kids are usually well-mannered and respectful and much more cooperative than their city counterparts. I had joined a car-pool with three other teachers who lived in Farmville. This way I had to drive the full distance only one week out of a month. But although I enjoyed my job, my coworkers, and the kids, that sixty-six mile trip every day soon became burdensome. Therefore, I found it impossible to refuse a job offer as Head Teacher at First Rock Elementary School in Prince Edward County. (Don't be misled by the "fancy" title: there was no increase in pay, only in responsibility. The Head Teacher, in addition to his regular teaching assignments, kept the keys, made sure that fires in the stoves in each of the four classrooms were tended, presided every day over the flag raising, and inspected the two outhouses.) I remained in this capacity for two years.
I have always liked girls! In grade school there were two or three girls who captured my fancy. I don't recall that I ever worked up enough courage to declare my sentiments, but I have the feeling that the girls knew. As females, even young girls, always know when a fellow likes them.
In high school and throughout college, I had my share of girl friends, but by that time I had learned to be cautious. My one serious love affair had ended when the object of my affection moved away and found another romantic interest in her new surroundings. "Out of sight, out of mind," I suppose. Well, that affair taught me to keep my guard up, to be very slow and sure before making a commitment.
At Virginia Union I met a woman whom I dated for a while. We became close and marriage, although not directly discussed, was an assumed possibility in the relationship. But I was still not sure of exactly who I was or what I should be doing with my life. And following my graduation from Virginia Union I was stuck out on the farm with very limited income. (I met the woman again many years after the relationship had ended and she asked me "Why didn't you marry me?" I explained to her that I was very unsure of myself and my life and was not ready for marriage at the time. Actually, it was a good thing I did not marry her because I could see from her description of her life that she was actually very spoiled. I could not see this when I was young, but now it was very apparent.)
Later, living in the country in Prince Edward County, the courting scene required a great deal of travel. Once I had a car, it was not at all unusual for me to drive sixty or seventy miles to spend an evening with a lady I liked. Most of the affairs I engaged in were of short duration. I was always looking for greener pastures. I had a genuine fondness for many of the ladies I dated, but the all consuming passion, this thing we call love, was lacking. I thought about marriage and even came close to tying the knot on two occasions, but something always intervened. But I did not really care. I was having a ball running from pillar to post.
One good thing about teaching in Farmville was that in 1958 I met my wife Mary Malloy (called Malloy), who was also a teacher in Farmville. I met the lady who would become my wife during that first year of teaching. In a way we were an odd match. She was a gym teacher, loved all sports, indeed, all competitive athletic activities, whereas I absolutely abhorred (still do to this day) any unnecessary physical exertion. She would not want to miss a game, or a tournament, or a gymnastic event, whereas I would prefer a game of Scrabble (not necessarily against an opponent; I had learned to enjoy playing the game alone by pitting left hand against right had) or reading, to watching some athletic event.
But, somehow, in spite of these differences, we seemed compatible in enough other ways to enjoy each other's company. We were always looking for something to do, and that wasn't easy in Farmville where it was said that for entertainment and diversion Farmvillians sometimes went down to the barber shop to watch the barber perform a few haircuts. Or they could always watch a few bumpers rust down on Main Street.
Sometimes we would have dinner at Maude's Hot Shop near Appomattox and then take in a movie in Lynchburg. This was a real treat for us, a big deal. Most of the time, we went to the local drive-in theater and out to Bill McKays' Tastee Freeze.
Midway in the academic year at First Rock Elementary School, I began to hear rumors that Prince Edward County was going to abandon its public schools. This did not really surprise me. Or maybe I should say I understood the attitudes of the whites and could expect something like this from them. I knew that there was a great deal of resentment and anger among the white residents of the county because of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education outlawing segregation in the public schools. And I knew, given the fact that Prince Edward County was 60% percent black, that there was bound to be a mixture of both fear and resentment among the whites. But, even so, I still found it hard to believe that the whites would resort to such a drastic countermeasure.
But, as the year wore on, the rumors continued to multiply and to circulate until, finally, the county announced through the local newspaper that they would indeed close the schools and abandon public education, rather than integrate. I tried to prepare my students for this eventuality, but I found that they and their parents were reluctant to believe, in spite of the statements in the newspaper and my warnings, that their county really meant to follow through with their announced intentions. I think that some of the blacks became convinced only when they saw the schools being boarded up.
In 1959 Prince Edward Country earned the dubious distinction of being the only county in the nation that completely abandoned public education to avoid racial integration. As a measure of their contempt and defiance of the Supreme Court ruling which struck down segregation in public education, the county fathers closed the schools, dismissed all the teachers, and boarded up the school houses. They hastily provided "Academies" for the white students leaving black parents to shift for themselves in finding solutions to the enormous problem of providing education for their children.
A man who had earned a reputation in the community as an "Uncle Tom" came to see me shortly after the schools had closed. He attempted to persuade me that our farm would be an ideal location for a private school for black students. He was prepared to offer me $1,500 dollars if I would agree and I, of course, would have a teaching job in the proposed school. At that time $1,500 dollars looked like all the money in the world to me. (My take home pay by this time was about two hundred dollars a month.) But I could not agree to his offer, for it seemed to me that what he proposed flew in the face of what the N.A.A.C.P. was trying to accomplish in that county. As I saw it, compliance with the offer would have placed me squarely in the camp of the segregationists. I would be making it easier for them to justify the draconian solution they had implemented. Further, if I had complied with the offer, I did not see how I could have faced the numerous friends with whom I had supported the walkout. A further consideration -- how could I justify such compliance with my own conscience and to my friend Vernon Johns?
Not the least important of the considerations that prompted my refusal was the fact that I wanted to get away from Prince Edward County. I had been there for nine years and I could not see that I was any better off than I was when I moved there. I wanted a change of scenery. I wanted a little more excitement in my life than Prince Edward County could afford.
I have thought about this situation many times over the intervening years, and always with the question, "Did I make the right decision?" Should I have overlooked my distaste for the bringer of the proposal and considered only the larger picture? Would my friends have understood that what appeared to be cooperation with the segregationist was only a means by which to make possible schooling for those kids who were not able to go away to school? These questions trouble me even now, so long after the fact.
In the process of preparing the schools for a long shut down, I'm told, workers discovered in the principal's closet in one of the county's schools, reams and reams of construction paper some of which was so old that it had become brittle and unusable. The paper should have long ago been passed out for the children's use, but the principal held it back, some say, to have a surplus at the end of the year, thus strengthening his hold on his job. It was rumored also that so lacking in principle was this man that he would go to the superintendent's home on Saturdays to wash his car and mow the grass.
Pat Conroy in his book The Water is Wide describes the pre-integration black principal. He writes, "It was once so much nicer. They (the superintendents) controlled black principals who shuffled properly, who played the role of downcast eyes and easy niggers and who sold their own children and brothers on the block of their own security." I believe that most pre-integration black principals were men of integrity, sincerely dedicated to provide the best possible education for the children in their charge within their limited means to do so. But there were others, who, like the example Ive cited, were contemptible wretches, fully deserving the "Uncle Tom" label.
I was of mixed feelings about the closing of the schools in Prince Edward County. Of course, I thought it was a terrible tragedy, but at the same time, I had my own personal reasons for not minding the turn of events. I did not really enjoy my teaching in Farmville. Often a teacher would have to teach a subject about which they knew almost nothing. I was ready for new adventures and new intellectual challenges.
With the closing of the schools, that meant, of course, that all the teachers of the county's schools were now unemployed. In the cases of those teachers who did not live in the county (who were sometimes called "suitcase teachers") it may have been a simple matter to find work in another county. But for others who had homes and families and were established in the county, it imposed a great hardship.
Having refused the principal's offer, I found myself without a job, with ongoing bills and expenses. I had no choice but to leave the county. I left the county that summer and got a teaching job in Charlottesville, Virginia (about an hour's drive north of Lynchburg). Even so, I was in Farmville long enough to witness and appreciate the confusion and consternation of black parents of school age children. By late summer, most of them had finally faced up to the reality that there would be no schools for their youngsters. And a big problem for so many parents was what were they going to do about their children's education? Some of the parents were able to place their children in the homes of relatives in other places. Some children enrolled at Kitrell College, which set up programs to accommodate grade and high school children. And the Quakers managed to relocate some of the children to other places with the result that a number of Prince Edward children were able to continue their education. But an unknown number of children fell through the cracks and went without further education.
Even when the schools reopened five years later, many of this lost group did not return to school, and it's easy enough to understand why. An eight year old youngster in the third grade when school closed, was now, when school reopened, a thirteen year old going into the fourth grade, and as such was an object of curiosity and probable derision. It is, therefore, not surprising that for many of these youngsters their formal education ended when the schools closed.
When after five years the schools were reopened by a mandate from the federal government, the personnel of the schools made heroic efforts to "rescue" as many of the forgotten group as possible. They initiated special, innovative programs to enable each youngster to move at his own pace. In this way, a student might possibly move through two or more grades in a year. This strategy motivated many of these children to perform at the very peak of their abilities for they could see very clearly that each step up the ladder moved them closer to the grades they were supposed to be in.
I have been told by some residents of Prince Edward County that some of the whites of the county seem to be embarrassed and reluctant to talk about the lost years in the history of education in Prince Edward County. Well might they be.
Prince Edward County must forever bear the distinction of being the only county in the nation that closed its schools rather than integrate. In trying to understand the thinking of those whites who chose such a drastic solution one can only conclude that fear, and an enormous contempt for black aspirations, and something closely akin to hatred of black people were the chief motivating factors. They feared numbers first of all. (I wonder if there had been a smaller number of blacks living in the county, the powers that be might have sought a less harsh solution.) At that time, the proportion of blacks to whites in the county was about 60 percent black to 40 percent white. (Prince Edward County is the westernmost boundary of what is known as the Black Belt, an area which extends eastward through Petersburg.) Obviously then, the school population figures would have been overwhelmingly black. One wonders what the response would have been if there were only a small percentage of black people living in the county. Would they have chosen a less drastic solution?
The whites feared any change that might offer opportunities for fraternization between the races. So great was this fear that in another county when the schools were integrated, the high school had a curtain installed in the gym so that (black) boys could not look over at the (white) girls on the other side of the court. As long as the school was all-white, there was no such curtain.
Even more, the whites feared any change that threatened to alter in any way the carefully preserved and faithfully adhered to customs and traditions of the old South that held all black people to be inferior to all white people. They believed that black children of the county were learning far below the levels of scholastic achievement of their own children, and probably they were right. Had they not done everything possible to guarantee an inferior education for black children? They knew about the tattered books and other worn out equipment in the black schools. They knew the crowded, inadequate conditions at the black schools of the county.
Now that the federal government had decreed integration, their children would have to go to school with the products of a vastly inferior educational system. Would not an infusion of large numbers of poorly prepared black children have brought down for all children the levels of scholastic achievement?
Now their chickens were coming home to roost and with a vengeance! Did they ever blame themselves for the situation in which they found themselves? Did they ever face up to the realization that if they had striven as diligently to guarantee equality as they had to preserve separation, integration could have been deferred indefinitely?
In spite of the school's closing, in spite of the tensions and unrest that characterized race relations at that time, I believe that there were a substantial number of whites in the county who wished the best for all of the county's children, and who were ready to sacrifice custom and tradition in order to comply with the law.
My own experience in the county led me to believe that many of the whites with whom I had contact were individuals who had little or no bias against black people and who were ready, despite their misgivings and uncertainties, to alter their views to accept the vast changes of the times.
This conviction is further strengthened and reinforced by the testimony of friends who lived in the area through that period. One such friend told me that a great number of her white acquaintances had expressed to her their regrets that their county had taken such a step in closing the schools and they deplored the inevitable consequences which would doom the educational aspirations of many of the county's black citizens. I know that there were then, just as now, people of good will in the county. They were powerless to effect any change, being small in number, and they dared not speak out against the powerful forces defending the status quo.
Further, a sizeable number of the county's whites lost their farms and homes through foreclosure. In order to keep their children in the private school, which was their only option, many went heavily into debt and were compelled to mortgage their holdings in order to cover school costs. The banks foreclosed on many of these properties. "Now that we're completely broke," said one white lady to my friend, "no one can blame us if we send out kids to the public school" (which by that time had reopened). Thus, the closing of the schools had a devastating effect, not only on the black citizens of the county, but on many whites as well.
One final thought on the subject: A white woman, a long time resident of the county, said to me one day, "If you know any family that is not going to have a good Christmas, let me know."
She did not specify white or black. She said "any family." I was no longer living in the county and was not able to make any recommendations in response to her offer but, out of curiosity, I asked around about the woman and I learned that for years she had made it a practice to play Santa Claus to many of the less fortunate citizens of the county, both black and white. What a wonderful display of Christian spirit! How can I doubt that there are people of good will, black and white, who live in Prince Edward County?
At present there are two school systems in operation in Prince Edward County. One, The Fuqua School, formerly Prince Edward Academy, is a private enterprise which came into being when the public schools closed, its purpose being to provide education for the white children of the county. The Fuqua School is funded by gifts and by tuition fees. Although its original purpose was to provide schooling for white children, today there are few black youngsters on its rolls. Possibly, the blacks were recruited in order to make the school eligible for funding which might not otherwise be available to it.
Since public education is now available to all the youngsters in the county, more and more white parents are choosing to send their kids to the public schools of the county rather than pay the hefty fees that private education requires. At present the ratio of black to white students is nearly 50-50, with a slight preponderance of blacks. Integration has been achieved in Prince Edward County -- but at what a cost!
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