In 1951, black students in Farmville, Virginia—led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns—staged a strike to protest conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School. The subsequent lawsuit later became one of five cases folded into Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that made “separate but equal” unlawful. Moton was the only one of the five cases that began with a student-led challenge.
But the Moton students’ struggles didn’t end with the May 17, 1954, Supreme Court ruling, now marking its 60th anniversary. Rather than comply with the court, Virginia lawmakers launched a campaign known as “Massive Resistance,” and in the fall of 1958, they closed schools in three major districts for a semester to avoid having to integrate them. Prince Edward County—home to Farmville—shuttered all of its public schools in 1959, and they remained closed for five years. During that time, white students attended private academies paid for by their own families and sympathetic segregationists. But black students were left largely to fend for themselves, cobbling together educations in church basements and home-school settings.
In 1963, a coalition of educators and community leaders created the Prince Edward Free School Association, and used private funds and the support of President Kennedy’s administration to open four campuses serving about 1,500 black students. The 1964 Supreme Court ruling in Griffin vs. School Board of Prince Edward County forced the district’s schools to finally reopen.
The Moton School is now the Moton Museum and a National Historic Landmark, its classrooms turned into exhibits documenting the students’ strike, the five-year educational drought, and the legacy of the historic Supreme Court ruling. I spoke with Justin Reid, associate director of the Moton Museum, about the Brown v. Board anniversary.
When people talk about Brown v. Board, it’s usually thought of as one court case. But the Moton students actually accounted for 75 percent of the plaintiffs. So why wasn’t Moton the lead case instead of Brown (a class action consisting of parents and students in Topeka, Kansas)?
The court wanted this to be seen as a national issue, and not a southern issue. Justice Earl Warren, the former governor of California, had been appointed to the Supreme Court just two months prior to the desegregation ruling being handed down. He encouraged the other justices to make it a unanimous ruling. In his mind, the way the decision was handed down was as important as the decision itself.
What was it like to be a student at Moton in the 1950s?
The primary issue was the school was too small. It had been built for 180 students and they had more than 450. Classes were held in farm buildings and chicken houses— the same structures you would put an animal in. Students had to hold umbrellas when it rained because the roof leaked so badly. There would be one pot-bellied stove, and in one part of the room you’d be burning up and in another you’d be wearing your winter coat and shivering because the heat didn’t reach that far. Students from those years talked about how often they missed school because they were sick.
Farmville High School, for the white students, was only a couple of blocks away so there was something to compare to. Moton had no cafeteria, no gym, no science lab, no lockers, no teachers’ break room, no infirmary. Right up the street they could see all the things they were being deprived of.
Moton students weren’t just striking for equal buildings, they were striking for an expanded curriculum to prepare them for the workforce and college. They knew education was important, and they would do anything they could to get a quality one.