School Desegregation: A Community’s Response
OverviewThe challenge of protecting civil rights in a democracy, the intersection between state and local government, the activity of citizens in their local school board and administration, and the role of the media in addressing controversial issues are all themes studied in this activity. Teachers lead students in analyzing three Southwest Virginia newspaper articles published in 1959. Each article examines the issue of whether Floyd County would integrate its public high school following a time when the state of Virginia had declared a policy of Massive Resistance in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
To provide students with historical background about the events leading up to the Floyd County struggle over desegregation and to put the remaining activities in context, have students review the U.S. National Archives website. The website provides information regarding a 1947 NAACP lawsuit in Pulaski County called Mahatma Corbin v. County School Board of Pulaski County.
While students are reviewing the website, have them complete Handout #1: School Desegregation in Pulaski County, Virginia. If time constraints exist, reviewing the website and completing the handout can be assigned the class period before as homework.
As a class, discuss student responses to Handout #1. During the class discussion, the teacher should emphasize the following:
- The central complaint of the appellant was the lack of equal facilities and the distance African American students in Southwest Virginia were required to travel to attend Christiansburg Institute.
- The Corbin case was one of the last “equalization” lawsuits. Following the Corbin case, the NAACP focused on desegregation itself as the only way to guarantee complete protection of 14th Amendment rights to full citizenship.
- The significance of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision requiring the desegregation of public schools across the country and Virginia’s Massive Resistance program.
To help teachers prepare to facilitate the class discussion, the Virginia Center for Digital History website Television News and the Civil Rights Era 1950–1970 is an excellent resource of glossary terms and the historical background on this period of time in Virginia.
After introducing the topic of school desegregation, teachers should distribute Handout #2: What Were the Newspapers Saying? Along with the handout, give students two different color highlighters. Working in pairs, students will highlight important facts and participants, and write two unanswered questions for each article.
To organize and conduct a group discussion, complete the following steps:
- Write three columns on the board labeled facts, participants, and questions.
- Ask students what they believe are the five most important facts presented in the first article and record their responses on the board.
- Ask the class to decide which five facts are the most important. Asking students to negotiate a shorter list from the longer one generated in discussion will allow a second, more critical, examination of the article.
- Next, ask students to identify participants in the article and record their responses on the board.
- As part of the discussion, ask students about the role of each participant in the events described in the article.
- Finally, ask students what questions they had about each article and record the questions on the board for discussion.
Repeat the above steps for the remaining two articles.
Handout #3: Group Discussion Sample Responses provides sample charts for the teacher that identifies possible responses from students and results from the group discussion.
Present this historical information to enhance group knowledge and discussion.
Southwest Virginia did not have the same racial composition as the eastern part of the state. The region was known as the “white belt” with only a 10-percent African American population. On May 19, 1954, two days after the Brown decision, a Roanoke Times article noted that Buchanan County was the “only county in Virginia unaffected by the Supreme Court” because it had “no Negroes among its 36,000 residents.” In the same article, the staff writer boasted that Buchanan’s school superintendent was “in an enviable position when compared to the problems other school administrators face in the future.” Believing the region was an exception to other parts of the state, a 1954 Southwest Times editorial reported, “In Pulaski, with excellent race relations and with our citizens of all nationalities and creeds working and living together in harmony we see no major problem.” The idea that Floyd County was “vulnerable” to an NAACP petition to desegregate its schools illustrates the region’s continued perception of itself as exceptional in its race relations.
Southwest Virginia was home to one of the premier African American schools in the country, the Christiansburg Institute. Located in Montgomery County, Christiansburg Institute was established in 1866 after the Civil War by Friends’ Freedmen’s Association to help educate newly freed slaves. In 1895, Booker T. Washington became the school’s superintendent and modeled Christiansburg Institute after his own industrial trade school, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute now known as Tuskegee University. After the 1947 lawsuit, Corbin v. County School Board of Pulaski County, cited inequalities in the education of black and white students in the region, Christiansburg Institute received funding from the surrounding counties that opted to support the African American school in their region rather than desegregate or build their own separate school. In 1959, a Roanoke Times article noted that “the usual academic and vocational courses found in any high school are taught at the institute. There are also courses in cosmetology and barbering, rarities in other Southwest Virginia high schools.” Southwest Virginians believed they were upholding their obligation to black students by providing a fine education at Christiansburg Institute.
The goals and course that Massive Resistance in Virginia hoped to pursue depended on the ability of the media to successfully present its arguments to a diverse audience across the state, and outside its borders. This challenge of reaching a wide audience should not have posed a significant problem because the state’s Democratic political machine was dominated by its senior senator, Harry Byrd, and he controlled the media. Southwest Virginia, however, presented a challenge because it was less culturally or politically loyal to the Byrd machine. The newspapers in Southwest Virginia did not uniformly support Byrd and were independent in criticizing policies handed down from the state capital in Richmond. The Floyd County articles again illustrate the independence of reporting in what was considered by many strictly a “local issue.”
Following analysis of the three articles and group discussion, students should conclude that the issue of desegregation in Floyd County in 1959 is a case study in the challenge of civil rights in a democracy. While the question of desegregation involved only 14 African American students, those students were guaranteed the right to a free and public education by law. Christiansburg Institute was a good school, but it did not provide an equal opportunity for African American children in Southwest Virginia and the distance the school was located from many homes made it a burden to students.
The question of public education hits at the heart of what democratic institutions rely on to ensure an educated electorate. Public schools rely on state funding and therefore must to some degree abide by state policies, but they are also important to local administrations such as the Board of Supervisors, School Board, and PTA. The media also play an important role in reporting matters of local and state concern to their audiences. In the second article, students will learn that reporters took great journalistic pride in digging deeper into the issues for more information about the source of the petitions.
In total, the three articles reveal that in the matter of public school policy there are many participants. It intersects state and local administrations, involves parent and students, and even relies on the media to present views and comments from public and private citizens.
To adapt this lesson for both advanced and remedial students, teachers should use the link to the Virginia Center for Digital History website Television News and the Civil Rights Era 1950-1970. Click on Films and Summaries, then click on 1959, and play the following three movie clips from Roanoke based WDBJ 7 television:
- Clip 1: NAACP Attorney Lawson Comments on Plans to Integrate SW VA Counties
- Clip 2: Delegate Joseph Poff Comments on Segregation Suit
- Clip 3: Teacher and student Floyd County comments on integration
Remedial students should be asked to comment on what they hear and see in the video clips and use the group chart to organize their discussion about the role of both state and local officials in deciding the question of desegregation in Floyd County.
Advanced students should use their knowledge from the newspaper articles to compare to what they see and hear in the television interviews. Teachers should challenge students to ask which form of journalism is more democratic, print or television? To supplement a discussion of the role of the media in the Civil Rights Movement, have advanced students read an online article, Television News and the Civil Rights Struggle, by William G. Thomas III. This article is linked from the Television News and the Civil Rights Era website under Essays and Interpretations.