The Prince Edward County Free School Association

Today’s blog was written by Emanuel Riley, graduating senior at the University of Maryland and Student Intern at the National Archives at College Park

On October 17, 1963, William J. vanden Heuvel, then special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, delivered a speech to the students and faculty of Hampden-Sidney College in Prince Edward County, Virginia. By the time, vanden Heuvel delivered the speech he had become quite familiar with Prince Edward County; the county that held the title as the only county in America to close the doors of its public school system amid federal orders to desegregate its school system.

The file unit LL 2-3 Desegregation: Prince Edward Co. (NAID 18515150) located in the Office Files, 1928–1980 (National Archives Identifier 573507) series in RG 12 Records of the Office of Education contains documentation from the desegregation, and subsequent mass closings, of the Prince Edward County school system. The legal case for the desegregation of the Prince Edwards County school system would become one of the five court cases that would become Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the landmark Supreme Court case in which laws establishing segregated schools were deemed to be unconstitutional.

The events leading up to the closing of the school system occurred as the war of attrition on school desegregation was occurring, led by lead counsel at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thurgood Marshall. Marshall and the NAACP saw the Prince Edward School System as an ideal case to challenge the constitutionality of public school segregation and overturn the doctrine of Separate but Equal established by Plessy v. Ferguson more than 50 years prior. Following several lower court decisions seeking to delay the effective date of school desegregation, the U.S. Supreme Court, on June 26, 1959, denied the Prince Edward School Board’s request for further delay of the desegregation mandate. The school board responded by shutting the doors to all of its public schools in the summer of 1959.

At the start of the 1959–60 school year, the county’s white children were provided education through the Prince Edward School Foundation, a nonprofit school foundation that provided elementary and secondary education. Several local and state agencies, including the Virginia Teachers’ Association and the Prince Edward County Christian Association, arranged to provide black children with the opportunity to receive an education in non-public facilities in the county and in surrounding areas. But, less than 200 of the county’s 1,700 black children were able to attend school under such arrangements. Most of the county’s 1,700 black children were not provided a public education between 1959 and 1964.   In 1963, Michigan State University conducted a study on black and white students in Prince Edward County. Below is a sampling of the results of the study.

The Prince Edward Free School Association was established to serve the children who could not receive an education under the alternative forms of schooling established following the closing of the public school system. The Free School Association began from an initiative started by President John Kennedy, following a petition started by citizens of the county demanding public education for students of all races. On its opening day, the Prince Edward Free School Association provided schooling to 1,550 black children in the county.

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