In 1959 Shirley turned 6 years old. Her excitement grew as fall approached because she would be going to school for the first time. What she didn't understand was that 1959 was to be different. The US Federal Court had ordered Prince Edward County, Virginia, where Shirley lived, to desegregate its schools. And the county school board, rather than integrate their system as ordered, closed all the public schools.
Shirley's mother hoped that the situation would be resolved over the summer and the schools would reopen. In the final weeks of summer she bought Shirley new shoes, a book bag, a lunch pail, and a beautiful new dress. Shirley could hardly contain herself every time she looked into her closet. She imagined herself in her new school clothes, riding the school bus with all the other children in Prince Edward County. She was thrilled to think she would learn to read and write like the big kids.
The big day finally arrived, but Shirley did not get to go to school as she had hoped. The public schools did not reopen. White children were given school vouchers to use toward tuition in the private, all-white Farmville Academy, but Shirley and her African America schoolmates were barred from enrolling in the Academy and were left with no school to go to. Until 1959 the white children on the bus would have been taken to the clean, bright new buildings that were for white children only. Shirley and her African American siblings and friends would have attended one of the Negro schools-one-room schoolhouses with no running water or bathrooms, a tar paper roof, and cracked or broken windows.
Each morning that fall, Shirley dressed in her pretty new clothes, grabbed her book bag and lunch pail, and walked to the bus stop. She watched the white children board the bus, dreaming that she, too, was going to school. She spent the school hours under a tree reading her picture books and drawing. Every afternoon, Shirley would return to watch the children arrive home from school, pretending that she, too, was walking from the school bus to her house after a day of learning.
Shirley's story is a true one, as related by Don Baker in a Washington Postarticle published in 2001. By the time the schools reopened in 1964, Shirley was 11 years old and should have been in the 5th grade. As disturbing as this was, for the teenagers of Prince Edward County the situation was far more serious. Not being able to attend school from 1959 to 1964 meant missing high school completely. Job opportunities would be severely limited without a high school diploma, and college plans were out of the question. Many families sent their children to live with family members in neighboring counties or states so they could be educated. Those who did not have family to turn to were left without formal schooling.
In December of 1959, the Southern Interagency Council called a meeting of various educators and community leaders, including the AFSC, the NAACP, and the Southern Regional Council. The purpose of the meeting was to find ways to assist African American students during the school crisis in Prince Edward County. From this meeting, the AFSC came away with the idea to open an office in Farmville, Virginia, where the AFSC's Emergency Placement Project could operate. Beginning in 1960, for the next four years many of the county's African American high school students were sent through the AFSC Emergency Placement Project to live with host families across the country. Thus they were able to attend school, and many received their high school diplomas miles away from family and home.
The AFSC office in Farmville served another purpose as well-- as a central location for community networking. Citizens groups were formed to run training schools and recreational activities, to assist with summer catch-up programs, and even to open the Prince Edward County Free School in spring of 1964. Working tirelessly, AFSC staff and community partners pressured officials in the county, state, and federal government to get the schools reopened. And once the schools were finally opened, the AFSC office remained in Farmville, helping the local community cope with the terrible aftermath of bigotry, and carrying the lessons learned into the surrounding counties and states.
Researched and written by Joan Lowe