Equity & Diversity

Va. Lawmakers Plan Scholarships For Victims of 1959 School Closings

By David J. Hoff — March 17, 2004 3 min read
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Virginia legislators have endorsed a plan to compensate those who were denied public schooling during the state’s era of resistance to desegregation 45 years ago.

Now, advocates of the bill are trying to ensure the measure is adequately funded.

The state Senate unanimously passed a bill March 9 that would establish scholarships for anyone who was denied schooling when a community shut its public schools rather than comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s orders to desegregate them.

The House of Delegates unanimously approved its version of the bill in January.

“This is putting resources back in the hands of those individuals—educational resources that were wrongfully denied,” said Delegate Viola O. Baskerville, the Richmond Democrat who sponsored the House version of the measure.

Most of those who are eligible lived in Prince Edward County, which closed its public schools from 1959 until 1964 rather than comply with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The county school system was the target of one of the four cases covered by the landmark school desegregation decision.

Bill supporters estimate that 2,000 people who were caught up in the closures—the youngest of whom are now in their mid-40s—would qualify for scholarships for postsecondary education, earning a General Educational Development certificate, or adult-literacy instruction.

Sufficient Funding?

The scholarships would be useful even in rural Prince Edward County because it has a small state university in its largest town, and a community college near its border with an adjacent county, according to Ken Woodley, the editor of the Farmville Herald, the county’s largest newspaper. He is a promoter of the scholarships.

While the plan’s backers are heartened by the support from legislators, they’re still campaigning to make sure it gets enough funding. The Senate version of the state’s two-year budget includes $100,000 for the scholarships. The House plan does not fund them.

That could change, Mr. Woodley said, if Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, uses his line-item budgeting power to raise the amount for the scholarships. Ms. Baskerville said the state should provide $2 million for the scholarships.

“We’re going to continue to put the press on for $2 million,” she said.

A House-Senate conference committee will need to compromise on other differences in the bills. Under the Senate version, children of those who were shut out of school would also be eligible for scholarships. The House bill covers just those who were excluded. Ms. Baskerville supports the Senate version because the House committee amended her version to restrict eligibility and set a “sunset” date for the scholarships.

‘Massive Resistance’

In the wake of the Brown decision and other desegregation orders, Virginia leaders tried to organize so-called massive resistance to the federal mandates. Only Prince Edward County participated.

Other counties closed their schools as well, though for shorter periods, and people denied education in those locations would be covered by both bills as well.

The rural county, about 60 miles west of Richmond, closed its public schools in 1959. The white community established a private academy that admitted only whites. With the help of the American Friends Service Committee, some African-American children were moved to other communities where they could attend public schools. But most black children received no formal schooling for five years.

The county reopened its public schools in 1964 only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its resistance to desegregation was unconstitutional. (“At the Crossroads,” March 24, 1999.)

Last year, Ms. Baskerville, a black lawmaker whose district includes the state Capitol in Richmond, sponsored a resolution in which lawmakers expressed “profound regret” for the closure of the Prince Edward County schools.

But Mr. Woodley, the Farmville editor, said that sentiment wasn’t enough.

In a series of editorials starting a year ago, he proposed scholarships as compensation for people who were affected by the school shutdown.

“We’re going further than saying we’re sorry,” said Mr. Woodley, who is white. In the 1950s, the Farmville Herald editorialized against the Supreme Court decisions and for the county’s resistance to them. “We’re saying we’re sorry and we’re going to do something about it.”

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