Unsung Heroes: Farmville Student Strike

Prince Edward County, Va., closed the public schools for several years rather than allow black students from Robert Russa Moton High School and others to attend the whites-only schools.

Prince Edward County, Va., closed the public schools for several years rather than allow black students from R. R. Moton High School and others to attend the whites-only schools. (Courtesy Hank Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Throughout the month of February, in honor of Black History Month, we will be featuring unsung heroes and stories of the civil rights movement. You can find more stories of those well-known and not-so-well-known in our Digital Classroom’s “Making A Change” module. To access their stories, you must be signed into the Digital Classroom; registration is free.

In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education struck down school segregation. The decision asserted that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal” and overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1898). Brown v. Board was a collection of five cases; all of them focused on the constitutionality of state-sponsored segregation in public schools. Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (VA), one of the five cases, started with a student-led strike at R. R. Monton High School in Farmville, Virginia.

In 1951, after years of overcrowding, poorly constructed classrooms and inferior salaries for teachers, Barbara Johns, a junior, organized a student strike. She, along with another student, lured the principal out of the school with a phone call about collecting truant students. While the principal was out of the building, the students convinced their teachers to allow an all-student meeting. In that meeting, the students came together and refused to attend classes until better facilities were built for African-American students. After hearing about the students’ actions, the NAACP sent representatives and urged students to demand integration. Agreeing to the NAACP’s request, a petition was filed on behalf of the 117 student and parent plaintiffs, with Dorothy Davis as the first name listed.

Three years later, the Supreme Court released their decision for Brown v. Board, ruling in favor of the Farmville students and against separate facilities for white and black students. The press reaction in the North was largely positive, calling it a “healing” ruling. In the South, editorials predicted social turmoil and noted that the court gave no timeline for the change to take place. (More direction would come in 1955 with Brown v. Board II)

In Prince Edward County, Virginia, where R.R. Monton High School is located, the ruling was met with “massive resistance“; the county shut down public schools from 1959-1964 in order to avoid integration.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. What do you think it was like to be a student involved in this strike? What were the risks? Why were they willing to take these risks?
  2. Why do you think the NAACP chose parents of school-aged children for this landmark case? Why might some parents have been hesitant to become involved in such a case?

Do you have an “Unsung Hero” that you would like included in the Digital Classroom? Visit our blog for more details on the Unsung Heroes Writing Contest.  

The Newseum Digital Classroom is a free resource featuring primary sources, interactives, historic newsreels, videos and lesson plans that bring history, journalism and the First Amendment to life for students.

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