The Farmville Protests of 1963:
Fighting Massive Resistance in Prince Edward County, VA
by Kate Agnelli, MSW
One of the most well-known Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history, Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. One of the provisions of the decision was that public schools in the United States were to integrate “with all deliberate speed,” but in many places, local and state governments resisted for months and years.
In Virginia, the state government was staunch in its refusal to allow school integration. Initiated by Senator Harry F. Byrd, the policy of Massive Resistance took hold strongly, and the state fought tooth and nail against school integration. By 1958, all of the laws Massive Resistance advocates had used to keep schools segregated were struck down as unconstitutional by Virginia courts, and to circumvent the courts, several public school systems closed entirely in 1959 rather than integrate.
Prince Edward County, about 75 miles southwest of Virginia’s capitol, Richmond, was the last holdout of these public school systems. By 1960, most of the schools in Virginia had reopened, and the state of Virginia had officially abandoned its policy of Massive Resistance. But in Prince Edward County and its county seat of Farmville, public schools remained closed until 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that the county was violating the Equal Protection Clause by keeping schools closed.
In the interim, over a thousand African American children were denied a formal education while their White peers were still attending schools organized and privately funded by White residents of Prince Edward County. Although the African American community (and some White community members) rallied and opened informal schools run by retired teachers and community members, many African American children never returned to school at all, even when schools reopened in 1964. Other children were sent to live with families in areas all over the east coast where schools were integrated (and open).
Farmville Protests: 1963
The community had help from the Kennedy administration, which was putting legal pressure on the county to reopen schools. However, community members wanted to take direct action, and beginning in 1963, the African American community undertook a series of major protests in Farmville, led by the Reverend L. Francis Griffin, a local pastor and civil rights leader. Rev. Griffin worked closely with the NAACP for many years, and became the president of its Virginia State Conference in 1962. Although he initially favored a focus on legal action, Rev. Griffin came to believe that direct action and protests were necessary for the good of all African American residents of Farmville and Prince Edward County. The protests were not just about school closures, but about the myriad types of segregation and discrimination that African American residents were still experiencing.
The Stokes Family
Sandy, Rudy, and James Stokes were three of the children affected by the extended closure of Prince Edward County’s schools by anti-integration residents and county government. They were involved in the protests of 1963, and reproduced below is a partial transcript of an interview with the family and photos of their story, told as part of the Freedom Now Project, an effort to document the civil rights struggles in Farmville, Virginia, using archival photos. All of the quotations below are taken from the linked interview with the Stokes family.
Here, Rudy Stokes can be seen third from left standing outside the College Shoppe, a restaurant in Farmville that refused to serve African American customers.
The above photo shows a “kneel-in” protest organized by Rev. Griffin. The church pictured refused to allow African American residents of Farmville to worship there. About the protest, Rudy Stokes said, “WFLO [the local radio station] broadcast advertisements on Sunday morning, ‘Worship at the Church of Your Choice,’ so we said okay, we’ll do that.” Both Rudy and Sandy Stokes, along with 18 other protesters, were arrested at this protest.
Sandy described being arrested at the kneel-in protest: “I was the first one they took away and they took us to the courthouse. I remember, a gentleman came to the door and said ‘Why are you coming here to our church? Why don’t you go to your own church? Don’t come here with a chip on your shoulder.’ And we started singing what? We should drink wine together on our knees. And then one of the police officers asked me my name, and we were taught not to say anything so they give you a Jane Doe or John Doe warrant. And they picked up me and took me to the courthouse, because they realized I was underage. And Reverend Williams was the next one and finally, I was so happy when you (Rudy) came in [to the police station].”
Informal schools sprung up in Farmville and Prince Edward County, and Rudy and Sandy Stokes both attended one of these schools for the first two years of the closures. After that time, more formal, but unfunded, schools were opened and the above photo shows registration day at Free School No. 2.
Rudy Stokes: “We didn’t realize that the schools would be closed that long, we thought maybe it would be a couple months, we’d have an extra long summer. That was the thought of the people, until after one year, two years, then hey, this is real.”
Sandy Stokes: “Where retired teachers or older people would teach us what they knew. You know, some kids had never gone to school and even if I knew my ABCs, I could teach a smaller kid. And we walked there everyday. Rudy, James: That was about a two mile walk, one-way, so four-five miles. Sandy: We walked, and stayed there at the center so we could keep our brains going a little bit.”
By 1962, residents of Prince Edward County realized the school closures could stretch on for years. Families with relatives in other areas sent their children to live with relatives. The Stokes children were separated, as they each went to live with different families in order to get an education.
Rudy Stokes: “The first year I stayed with a black family right on the Connecticut River and every morning before school I broke out into hives, my arms, face, and this continued the whole school year because I was out of my element. All of a sudden, I’m a black boy, in a white world.”
Sandy Stokes, on living with a family in Washington, DC: “They had grandchildren so they would bring them down on weekends to be with me to make me comfortable, but you’re missing your brothers and your family, you’re already shy and it was a lot, it was a lot to go through.”
James Stokes, on living with a family on the Chesapeake Bay: “There was a neighbor across street, he was military, he had a white son and daughter and I used to go over there and play with them. Once the father came in and I actually went and hid under the table because being from Prince Edward County, we weren’t allowed to play with white kids. We had to respect them just like adults. My grandmother used to teach us that we had to say ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and here I am at another location playing with the kids. So I guess it sort of frightened me and I didn’t know what the father was going to think of it.”
By 1964, the schools in Prince Edward County and Farmville had finally reopened. But even when kids did return to school, many were far behind or had forgotten most of what they had already learned. The Stokes family felt a responsibilty to help, since they had all been able to continue school.
Rudy Stokes: “People like Sandy and myself who had two years of school, we were just there because you can’t concentrate on everybody, you can’t have a tutor for every person so the majority of the work has go toward the kids that missed so much school compared to a person like me who had two years of schools. So we sort of maintained, he can survive compared to someone who hasn’t been to school for five years.”
All of the Stokes children went on to graduate from high school in Prince Edward County.
The entirety of the interview with the Stokes family, along with more photos, is available from the Freedom Now Project. For more information about the protests against Massive Resistance in Farmville, visit Encyclopedia Virginia.
Note: Special recognition must go to Alice Campbell of Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries, who made this article possible with her work to identify the Stokes family in the photos provided to the Freedom Now Project.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Agnelli, K. (2014). The Farmville protests of 1963: Fighting Massive Resistance in Prince Edward County, VA. Retrieved [date accessed] from /events/farmville-protests-1963/.