It’s been more than six decades since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that integration in schools is the law of the land — and fewer years that Virginia finally succumbed to the decision.
Resistance reached the boiling point from Culpeper to Front Royal, with Rappahannock County in the geographical center of the debate over whether to follow federal law and allow African Americans to enroll in “whites-only” schools..
“Simply stated, black parents wanted their children to get the best possible education in the best possible environment,” explained a special exhibit created by state curator Terry Miller at the Scrabble School museum this past weekend. Sponsored by the George Washington Carver Regional High School Alumni Association, the exhibit was funded by the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation.
“Schools for black children were ill-equipped, and in many cases, simply miles away from one’s home, while schools exclusively for white children were in their neighborhood.”
Rappahannock County in the 1950s and 60s had six schools for African Americans, four of them historic Rosenwald Schools — named after Sears Roebuck president and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who with Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute generously built state of the art schools for black children across the South.
In fact, Rosenwald Schools would serve more than one-third of the South’s rural black school children by the mid 1920s, although the percentage in Rappahannock was even greater. Rosenwald Schools were located in Flint Hill, Amissville, Washington and Scrabble, with two additional blacks-only schools in Sperryville and Big Branch.
By the time the 1950s and 60s came around, Virginia Gov. James Lindsay Almond, Jr., was doing all in his power to keep African Americans in those schools.
After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education was decided on May 17, 1954 — declaring that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional — Almond, then Virginia’s attorney general, argued cases against integration, often facing off in court against Thurgood Marshall, who would later become Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Many state and local officials, like Almond, were equally disturbed by the Supreme Court decision, with state Senator Robert Button, also a member of the state board of education, calling it a “mortal blow.”
The Culpeper Star-Exponent’s headline on May 20, 1954, went so far as to assure its readers that the Supreme Court’s decision notwithstanding: “County Will Await Ruling of State on Segregation Issue.”
The ensuing story pointed out that the “State Constitution calls for separate schools for Negro and white students,” while it quoted Almond, as attorney general, suggesting “it may be possible for Virginia to arrange separate, equal public schools for white and Negro pupils.”
In Culpeper alone at the time, there were 1,059 black students, compared to 2,013 white pupils.
Virginians ultimately elected Almond governor in 1958, and shortly thereafter he went so far as to close Warren County High School in Front Royal as a means of keeping African Americans out of its classrooms.
This tactic was known here in Rappahannock County and elsewhere in Virginia as “Massive Resistance,” and the outspoken Almond — who would wind up on a 1958 cover of Time magazine with a Confederate flag as his backdrop — worked closely with Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Sr., another staunch segregationist, to see that it succeeded.
In fact, it was Byrd who first announced the resistance strategy, while also helping organize other southern states to oppose integration. The strategy in Virginia seemed simple enough: take authority out of local government hands and reposition it in Richmond.
The senator also proposed that Virginia would actually pay the private school tuition of all white students whose schools would be shut down, if that’s what it would take to keep blacks out, including in Front Royal.
According to the resistance plan, the state would close all similar schools in Virginia where blacks, because of whatever loopholes, were allowed to enroll. The plan stated, if a black high school student “would not withdraw [his enrollment application], the state would close all high schools in that district.”
For that matter, according to the plan, any white student in Virginia who opposed integration in his or her school would also be provided a free private school education.
When a flaw in Byrd’s plan allowed a few black students to slip into white schools, the senator in 1956 quickly orchestrated a change to Virginia’s constitution, allowing the state to withhold funding to the affected schools.
In an editorial on display at the Scrabble School, Byrd opined that the Supreme Court decision to abolish segregation in public education “is not only sweeping but will bring implications and dangers of the greatest consequence.”
He went on to warn: “The decision will be deplored by millions of Americans, and, instead of promoting the education of our children, it is my belief that it will have the opposite effect in many areas of the country. In Virginia we are facing now a crisis of the first magnitude.”
But in 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the Massive Resistance plan was unconstitutional, and a U.S. Circuit Court ordered Warren County High School reopened. Shortly thereafter, 23 African American students walked up a hill in front of school and through the front door, successfully integrating that school.
Still, the senator and governor held their ground, and they had their share of supporters, not only local and state elected officials, but constituents like L.S. Key of Charlottesville.
In a Western Union telegram to the governor, dated May 1961 and also exhibited in Scrabble, the resident pleaded: “Please do not sell us down the river to the Washington dictators. I urge you [to] resist the invasion to the last man.”
But Byrd and Almond and company would ultimately fail in their bid to keep Virginia separate from much of the rest of the nation when it came to the integration of schools. Still, it wasn’t until 1968 — 14 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling — that Rappahannock County schools were finally integrated and Scrabble School and so many others could close their doors.