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Published in Print: February 19, 2003, as Va. Expresses 'Regret' for Closures Aimed at Resisting Desegregation

Va. Expresses 'Regret' for Closures Aimed at Resisting Desegregation

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The Virginia Senate last week gave final passage to a resolution that expresses official "regret" for the shutdown of the Prince Edward County, Va., public schools from 1959 to 1964 to avoid orders to desegregate.

The resolution, which cleared the Senate on a voice vote on Feb. 13, may represent the first time a state has effectively said it was sorry for closing public schools to avoid desegregating them in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Educationof Topeka ruling, a leading desegregation expert said.

The state House of Delegates had approved the measure earlier this month and must approve it once more before it goes to the governor for his signature.

"[T]he closing of the Prince Edward County schools severely affected the education of African-American students, wounding the human spirit, and ultimately contributing to job and home losses, family displacements and separations, and a deep sense of despair within the African- American community," the resolution states.

The resolution also acknowledges that the state passed legislation that cut public funding to integrated schools while giving state money to children attending nonsectarian private schools.

Prince Edward County gave rise to one of the lawsuits challenging separate schooling for black and white children that were decided with the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown striking down school segregation as unconstitutional.

History of Resistance

With the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision approaching, Virginia had never recognized its role in the closure of Prince Edward County's schools, said Delegate Viola O. Baskerville, a Democrat from Richmond who sponsored the resolution. She noted, however, that the resolution is not an official apology because some lawmakers felt that could lead to a call for financial reparations.

Gary Orfield, a co-director of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, said he was not aware of any other state passing a similar resolution.

He added that Virginia's resolution is of note because the state was a leader in the "massive resistance" to public school desegregation after the Brown decision. And while schools elsewhere in Virginia and other states temporarily closed during the desegregation struggle, Prince Edward County's students were locked out for five years.

Inspired by the state resolution, Prince Edward County school officials also hope to recognize the struggle of those affected by the school closings.

The 2,700-student district, which is now hailed for its integrated schools, wants to award honorary high school diplomas to those students who had to earn their diplomas elsewhere because of the shutdown.

"I don't think [the diplomas] make up for anything," Superintendent Margaret V. Blackmon said, adding that they would be conferred either this June or in 2004, marking the Brown decision's 50th anniversary. "I think it really does show an effort to help with the healing."

Dorothy L. Holcomb, a Prince Edward County school board member, was in the 4th grade when the district closed its schools. Ms. Holcomb said she doesn't display the high school diploma she received from a neighboring county, where her family moved.

But she said, "I'll certainly hang this honorary one in my office."

Vol. 22, Issue 23, Page 17

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