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Petition from Students at Lane High School, Charlottesville, to Reopen, September 1958

Context

After nearly two decades of legal challenges against racial segregation in public schools and higher education, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled in court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that school segregation was unconstitutional. Their decision paved the way for desegregation of educational institutions. Before Brown v. Board of Education, legal segregation had existed under the "separate but equal" doctrine, but for the most part, the separate educational facilities and opportunities the Southern states offered to African Americans were inferior, not equal, to those for white Americans. In 1956, Virginia's General Assembly adopted a policy of "Massive Resistance," using the law and courts to obstruct desegregation.

In 1957, in the midst of Virginia’s effort to maintain segregation in public schools, James Lindsay Almond Jr., won the gubernatorial election by pledging to uphold “Massive Resistance.” In September 1958, he closed schools in Charlottesville, Front Royal, and Norfolk rather than see them segregated, regardless of the petitions like this one that he received to reopen the schools. However, on January 19, 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the school-closing law, the same day that the federal district court in Norfolk made a similar ruling. Almond continued to appeal these rulings, however the closed schools ultimately reopened to an integrated student body. The courts ordered the admittance of small numbers of African American students into formally all-white schools around the state. The federal government put more and more pressure on the state to integrate its schools and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare threatened localities with loss of federal funding if they did not comply. U.S. Supreme Court decisions added to the pressure of desegregation, including Virginia’s own case, Charles C. Green et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia. Almond did not retreat from his unyielding stance on desegregation until early 1960, when he allowed Virginia schools to integrate, but only with token efforts that embraced passive resistance.

Citation: Petition from students at Lane High School, Charlottesville, to reopen, to Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr., Richmond. September 1958. Virginia, Governor (1958 – 1962), Executive Papers, 1958-1962, Accession 26230, Box 136, Barcode 1052833, Folder Norfolk Segregation, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Standards

VS.1, VS.9, USII.1, USII.9, CE.1, VUS.1, VUS.8, VUS.13, GOVT.1, GOVT.3, GOVT.10

Suggested Questions

In Their Shoes: Imagine you are one of the students who signed this petition. What would it be like for you if the schools were closed? Would this be a different experience if you were white, black, or Native American?

In Their Shoes: Imagine you were a student at this school during this time. Create a petition to Governor Stanley on why you think the schools should be open and your thoughts on Brown v. Board of Education.

Analyze: What do you think schools would be like in your area if Brown v. Board of Education never happened? What would your life and your fellow students’ lives be like?

Social Media Spin: Create a 140 character summary, including hashtags, to Governor Stanley during this time.

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