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School bus delivering students to tar-paper building at Robert R. Moton High School, 1953
School bus delivering students to tar-paper building at Robert R. Moton High School, 1953

... if you're looking at it on a national scale, I'd say we won a victory. I believe you could say the black people of Prince Edward County saved the public schools of the South, particularly in Virginia. Had we given in, I think perhaps massive resistance might have become the order of the day throughout the South. So in that sense we won a tremendous victory.

– The Reverend L. Francis Griffin

On April 23, 1951, in an event that foreshadowed the coming Civil Rights Movement, Barbara Johns, a sixteen-year-old African-American high school junior at Moton High, and fellow student leaders, organized their classmates in a two-week boycott of their overcrowded and unsafe high school in Farmville, the county seat. The strike, which began as a demand for equality in separate educational facilities, became, at the urging of the NAACP, a vital part of the growing movement for integration in all public education.

This documentary film is the largely untold story of how one girl’s courage helped set in motion the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education, a decision that adjusted the path of the United States back into alignment with the principles on which it was founded. It is a story that is filled with unsung heroes, ordinary people whose faith in those same principles - liberty, justice, freedom, equality - drove them to reach beyond themselves to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The student-inspired influence from Prince Edward County, Virginia, upon the legal battles that became Brown v. Board of Education, has been largely overlooked in the sweeping history of the Civil Rights movement. Yet the vision and courage of Barbara Johns and her fellow students, the moral and spiritual guidance of the Reverend L. Francis Griffin, and the commitment and purpose of this African-American community, deserve to be honored and remembered with the greatest moments in that history.

Building upon archival documents, film footage, still photographs, and sound recordings, as well as personal papers and memorabilia, the historical framework for the film will reveal the struggle of the African-American community of Prince Edward for educational opportunity.  Within this framework the film will present contemporary film footage, on-camera interviews, and the perspective of history through the words and voices of those who experienced it.

They Closed Our Schools will examine the effects of the school crisis on the children of both the black and the white communities and the years of the “crippled generation” of undereducated and uneducated children. Of more than two thousand children affected by the public schools closing, it is estimated that less than five per cent received schooling for all five years and most received no education at all.

Interviews conducted with individuals who, as children, experienced the numerous consequences of the school closing are central to the film. These will include individuals sent away from home for school, some of whom actually found greater opportunity; those educated through the valiant efforts of their churches and families; and those children denied any opportunity for literacy.

The stories will include those of African-American men who served their country in WWII and the Korean Conflict, and then found education refused to their children at home; of a young boy sent to Iowa for school in the care of a Quaker family whose mother experienced similar deprivation as a Japanese-American internee during WWII; of a Prince Edward student taken into the home of Holocaust survivors so that he could continue his education; and the story of a young girl who grew up to become a second grade teacher and now marvels at her role as she, herself, was denied the opportunity to attend second grade.

The film will chronicle the history of public education in Prince Edward from its post Civil War origins in the Freedman Bureau schools, to the 1920s effort for secondary education, to the building of the first black high school in 1939; from the student school strike of 1951 against over-crowded, inadequate facilities, to the inclusion of the Prince Edward schools in the 1954 Brown Supreme Court case; from the rise of Massive Resistance against school desegregation to the closing of the public schools in 1959 and the political example of Prince Edward County which fueled the battle to sustain segregation across the South. The film will examine the long legal battles to reopen the public schools in 1964; and the decades-long struggle to reestablish and reinvigorate public education in the county.

The attempt to end public education in Prince Edward County, provoked the 1964 ruling by the United States Supreme Court in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County that ordered the reopening of the public schools in Prince Edward and helped establish a fundamental right to public education in the United States. This history of Prince Edward County, while not well known, is a vital part of the Brown case and its historic legacy, and is deserving of national recognition.

(Photograph by Hank Walker/Life Magazine courtesy of TimePix)