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.