Wednesday, August 28th marks the day on which Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “I have a dream…” Fifty years later, we now have a black president and a country that persistently works to fulfill King’s ideals. King had a dream, “that one day this nation” would embody this disseminated message of equality living out “the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
At Hampden-Sydney, the open-arms of our beloved school weren’t always so hospitable to all men. In On this Hill, John Brinkley reports that the first black man admitted into our school was Alfonso V. White. White attended from 1968 until his graduation in 1972. White’s admission was due largely to a decision made by the Supreme Court in 1964 after a long, grueling process. After this ruling, there was a slow integration of blacks into predominantly white schools in Virginia – including our very own county of Prince Edward.
For Prince Edward County, the change originated from a whole host of people, but one woman has been commemorated as the individual to light the torch which would illuminate the path to desegregation in our county schools: Barbara Johns. Moton Museum documents the impact of Ms. Johns and her fellow schoolmates. The episode began in a small school building now known as Moton Museum. Complaints were made about the school: it was too crowded for all of the black high school students to fit in and there was an obvious lack of effort to ensure the modernity of the school’s equipment as well as the construction of the building. Compared to the nearby Farmville High School, the Moton School was overcrowded and lacked appropriate facilities. Advocating for a new school, Ms. Johns led a protest strike. Eventually, the group was able to convince the NAACP to take its case to the court, which would later be added to the court case known as Brown v. the Board of Education. The Moton Museum reports the verdict: “In the field of Public Education the Doctrine of ‘Separate but Equal’ has no place.” Following the verdict, a new modern high school was built with all of the up-to-date equipment and facilities. This high school is now known as the Prince Edward County High School. However, no action towards desegregation in the schools had been made by the state. Brave young black students were moving into all-white schools. Soon thereafter, in 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voted “to close public schools rather than desegregate them.” Just outside of the Moton High School a sign stood with these words written across its white face “School Property, No Trespassing, Under Penalty of Law, Prince Edward Co. School Board.”
Hope came through, then Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. His team assisted the call for schools to be reopened in the case, Griffin v. County School Board. And, in 1964, the schools were reopened and the slow process of integration of the schools began again after an uneasy standstill. The doors to the schools were reopened, and so were the opportunities for young people of both races.