Closing Time

 

Class of ’63 | “I want people to know the story,” Dr. Edward Peeples G’63 was saying. “I don’t want to lose the minutiae that affected people’s lives during segregation. Once that disappears, we can’t be forewarned.”

Peeples has chronicled some important chapters of that story, and played an active part in others. Having come of age in segregated Richmond, Virginia, during the 1940s, he evolved from having “no clue” that anything was wrong with that system (which he likens to a “polite version of the Stalinist regime”) to immersing himself in the Civil Rights movement.

Among the segregated schools that Ed Peeples photographed in Prince Edward County were the all-black Mission Elementary School (above) and the all-white Green Bay Elementary School (below).

By the time he arrived at Penn in 1961, Peeples had taken part in hundreds of sit-ins and other efforts to desegregate white-only restaurants in the Richmond area. He went on to write his master’s thesis in human relations on the Prince Edward County, Virginia, school-closing. There, in 1951, the students of the all-black Moton High School walked out to protest the conditions of their school, which had been ruled inadequate by the state’s Board of Education four years earlier, and to demand facilities equal to those provided to white high-school students. Though the county did build a new black-only school in 1953, Peeples describes
that as “part of the ruse to demonstrate to the courts that schools had been made equal in Prince Edward County,” adding that “even with this $900,000 new black school, schools remained distinctly unequal.” The students, assisted by lawyers from the NAACP, challenged Virginia’s law requiring segregated schools, and their case became one of five included in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. (In that case, the 1954 Supreme Court decision ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools violated the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional.)

But even after Virginia ended its “massive resistance” to court-ordered integration in 1959, Prince Edward County did not. Instead, county officials closed all its public schools, and an all-white private school was built with contributions from segregationists around the country. For the next five years, African-American children (and a number of poor white children) had no schools.

“It was one of most excruciating and painful things I witnessed,” says Peeples, now professor emeritus of preventive medicine and community health at Virginia Commonwealth University, whose library has a collection of his papers and photographs (http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/pec.html).
“It was a tragedy for the black community.”

It wasn’t just that more than 2,300 black students were “thrown out into the cold,” he says. “The tragedy was in the way families were fractured. When the schools were closed, all the black teachers were fired. All the white teachers were hired for the private school. Black women teachers often had to leave the county to find a job in another county or state. Many of their husbands were farmers, and the farmer had to take care of the children and continue to make a living.

“The poor whites had the same problem,” he adds. “For those who went elsewhere, there were a number of success stories, but the rest of them—my guess is about 1,500—I call them the Lost Generation.”

During his research, Peeples took photographs of the county’s schools and other aspects of segregated life, and he still recalls the atmosphere of “absolute hegemony by the local oligarchy,” which he describes as “clouds of intimidation” that led to a “sense of helplessness to do anything.” One such cloud emerged when a group of men with shotguns convinced him that he might want to point his camera in a different direction.

Not long after he completed his master’s thesis at Penn—“A Perspective of the Prince Edward County (Va.) School Issue”—in the spring of 1963, Penn’s library started getting requests. One letter came from Thurgood Marshall, then a circuit judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, requesting multiple copies. The U.S. Office of Education and Department of Justice used it as a briefing document in seeking a resolution of the case, even though the Kennedy administration, not wanting to alienate Virginia’s powerful Senator Harry Byrd, had been generally unsupportive of the locked-out students. Peeples himself went to Washington to brief a deputy commissioner of education, and was invited by the Civil Rights Commission to contribute to a study by Dr. J. Kenneth Morland, who had served as an expert
witness in Brown. The public schools were finally opened in 1964.

Peeples describes his thesis as “really a handbook, the first thing written other than a short article that was sympathetic for desegregation.” There is, he argues, “no such thing as a value-free position in science.”

In addition to the fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, the Prince Edward County story has a particular relevance in an era of de facto segregation, notes Peeples, who is also on the advisory staff of a documentary film, They Closed Our Schools, currently in production (http://www.mercyseatfilms.com/).

“Public schools are on the run,” he warns. “There are some great charter and parochial schools, where tuition grants are appropriate. But what we saw in Prince Edward County is happening all over again. It’s kind of a warning about how we could get into this jam again. We’re re-segregating our public schools all over this nation.”—S.H.

 


2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/27/04



Charles Soule will play—actually, write—your song
Martha Pollack’s Pearl puts artificial intelligence to work
Edward Peeples’ research preserves “minutiae” of school lockout
Phyllis Murray knows what hasn’t changed since Brown v. Board
Ed McDonough’s slow road to fast cars



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