August 15th, 1963

Nine Years After Brown v. Board, Virginia Teenagers Jailed For Protesting Segregated Public Education

On August 15, 1963, thirty-two teenaged protestors who challenged the Prince Edward County School Board’s refusal to integrate their public school system were released from jail. The juveniles had been arrested in two separate demonstrations held in the town of Farmville during the prior three weeks. When released to the custody of their parents, they were ordered to observe a 10:00 p.m. curfew, refrain from disorderly conduct, and “attend school if such be possible.” In fact, the impossibility of attending school was at the heart of their protest.

Five years before, a federal appeals court had ordered Prince Edward County to desegregate its all-white public high school by September 1959 in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Instead, county officials refused to fund the local schools and became the only jurisdiction in the country without a public school system.

Though the county was 40 percent black by 1960, all elected officials were white and political power within the black community was very limited. Economic power was also racially distributed, as black workers earned less than half of their white counterparts, and many black families lived in poverty. As a result, the end of county public education disproportionately harmed black students, as white leaders were quick to establish a segregated private school system for local white students. Black students who were able left town to live with friends and family in other communities and attend school there; hundreds of others remained in Prince Edward County with no means of attending formal school.

Beginning in June 1963, members of the NAACP in Prince Edward County organized a campaign to confront the racial inequality in their education system through direct action. Led by the Revered Francis J. Griffin, teen volunteers from surrounding communities and members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) mobilized to plan peaceful demonstrations focused on the city's business district. Staging sit-ins, try-ins, and attempts to integrate churches that were often met with violence and arrests, the volunteers in the "Program of Action" campaign labored for months, facing retaliation, threats, and arrest.

On August 14, 1963, the day before the arrested teens were released from detention, Governor Harrison announced the creation of the Prince Edward County Free School Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating an integrated school system in the county. The resulting “free schools” did not accomplish integrated education, but temporarily filled the schooling void by providing instruction to local black students. In May 1964, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Prince Edward County’s discontinuation of public education was unconstitutional, and the public schools reopened that September.