Davis v. the School Board of Prince Edward County
Moton High School is just a few miles from Appomattox, Virginia, the site of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant to end the Civil War. In 1951 African American students from the school fought their battle for access to equal education.
Led by Barbara Johns, a determined eleventh-grader, a group of students organized a strike for a better school. The students rallied their fellow classmates, an entire community, and NAACP attorneys to their cause. Their courage and commitment brought their demand for justice before the nation.
Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County Legal Case Summary
Place: Rural Farmville, Virginia
Grievance: Overcrowded, underfunded segregated schools for African American children
Plaintiffs: Ninth-grader Dorothy Davis and 116 other students and parents of Farmville
Decision: A federal district court ruled against the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs’ appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court
Surrounded by pine forests and small tobacco farms, Farmville had a population of about 5,000 inhabitants in 1950. About 45 percent of Prince Edwards County’s residents were African Americans, and about 80 percent lived on small farms. Many owned their own land, which provided some independence, though the average income was only $852 a year.
School pennant, 1950s
(Lent by John Arthur Stokes)
Prince Edward County opened its first black high school in 1939. Unlike its counterpart for white students, Robert Russa Moton High School had no gymnasium, cafeteria, lockers, or auditorium with fixed seating. Built with a capacity for 180, it contained 450 students by 1950.
To house the additional students, the school board built plywood structures covered with tarpaper and heated them with pot-bellied stoves. These “tarpaper shacks” became a symbol of all that was wrong with segregated education. The all-white school board promised to build a new school, but never followed through.
While many in the town called for patience, 16-year-old Barbara Johns refused to wait. With a few other classmates, she quietly organized the entire student body. On April 23, 1951, the principal was lured off campus, and all 450 students were called into the auditorium. After the students asked the teachers to leave, Barbara convinced her classmates that they should walk out until a new building was under construction.
Barbara Johns is shown here with her high school teacher. Johns’s name did not appear on the lawsuit. Fearing for her safety, her parents sent her to live with her uncle in Montgomery, Alabama.
(Courtesy of John Arthur Stokes)
Meeting at Griffin’s church
At the request of Thurgood Marshall, Hill and Robinson had agreed to look for a case in Virginia to challenge segregation directly. At this meeting in Rev. L. Francis Griffin’s church, they persuaded the students to drop their request for a new school and demand that the court strike down the Virginia law requiring segregated schools.
(Courtesy of Baltimore Afro-American)