Halifax County School Photographs
Soon after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the United State War Department's Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands established school for freedpeople in the former slave states, and northern white missionary societies established many more. The first statewide public school system in Virginia, created in 1870 under the authority of the Virginia Constitution of 1869, was racially segregated, and the Constitution of 1902 required separation of the races in public schools.
In Virginia, as nearly everywhere else in the South, public schools for black students were usually inferior, not equal, to schools for white students. The state government and local school boards provided less money for black schools than for white, paid black teachers less than comparably qualified white teachers, sometimes failed to provide public transportation for black students in rural areas, and often required that black teachers use cast-off or obsolete textbooks that white schools no longer used. Photographs of schools for white and black students dramatically illustrate the inequality. In some localities white students attended large and well-equipped brick schools while black students crowded into cramped framed schools or met in abandoned sheds, farmhouses, or churches. Schools for black students were also less likely to have electric lighting (once it became available), indoor plumbing, or even heat in the winter.
In Virginia, there were on average 37 percent more students attending the black schools than the white schools by 1900. This number is even more alarming when looking at the disparity between the white and black facilities. For the 1937–1938 school year, South Boston in Halifax County provided only two school buildings for black students, against eight for whites. These photos of black and white school buildings in Halifax County illustrate that black and white facilities were separate, but not at all equal.
The Robert R. Moton School of Prince Edward County became a prime example of the poor conditions of black schools during the mid-twentieth century. Built in 1939, and designed to house 180 students, the school was named for a distinguished black educator, Robert Russa Moton, who was born in Prince Edward County and became president of Tuskegee Institute. As in many other black schools throughout the South, enrollment at Morton High School grew more quickly than anticipated. Rather than build a new high school for blacks or properly enlarge Moton, the Prince Edward County school board built three large plywood buildings covered with tarpaper in order to accommodate the overcrowding. The black community called the buildings “tar-paper shacks.”
In 1951 Barbara Johns and other students at Moton High School went on strike to call attention to the deplorable conditions of their school. They persuaded attorneys Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson, two of Virginia's most able and distinguished civil rights lawyers, to file suit in federal court to require the county to provide black students with schools and educations equal to the ones it provided for white students. The attorneys decided to sue to overturn segregation and carried the case, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County, to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, Thurgood Marshall, attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, made the principal oral argument that directly challenged the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Virginia case was combined with similar cases from three other states and the District of Columbia, and in May 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal and therefore denied black students the equal protection of the laws that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed them
1. Which school looks more like your school? What do you think it would be like to go to school at either of these schools? Which one would you prefer to attend?
2. Did all children go to school together when these schools were built?
Anderson, James D. Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Fairclough, Adam. A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
Link. William A. A Hard County and a Lonely Place: Schooling, Society, and Reform in Rural Virginia, 1870–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.