Brown Case - Davis v. Prince Edward County

Davis, et. al. v. Davis, et. al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County


In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the only way an African American could receive a high school diploma in the early twentieth century was by attending a private academy.  Private high schools were operated by Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, and, Presbyterians in Virginia.  The public schools for blacks were elementary schools (grades 1-8) operated by county school boards.  The fact that school boards were county affiliated rather than city or town affiliated might have something to do with the relatively rural population of most school districts.

The history of activism in Richmond dates back to the streetcar boycotts in 1900s.  When the privately owned streetcar lines attempted to segregate the cars, blacks boycotted them for two years.  This impasse was resolved when the Commonwealth of Virginia passed laws making segregation of public facilities legal.  Streetcar companies had to comply with the new law.  African Americans were not prepared to fight the state legislature at this point in time.

In Prince Edward County public schooling for blacks was considered Aprogressive@ compared to neighboring counties.  Due partly to the fundraising efforts of the Farmville Colored Women=s Club, the Robert Moton School, added grades 9-12 by 1947.  Prior to 1947, African Americans Agraduated@ from high school after the 11th grade.  Given that the number of school years were fewer than in the white schools, African Americans from neighboring counties came to Farmville to attend the Robert Moton High School in the 1930s and 1940s.  The original building was a two-story frame building that later became the elementary school once the Anew@ Robert Moton High School was built in 1943 across the street.  The Anew@ school was never adequately large enough, necessitating the use of tar paper covered buildings hastily constructed on the campus for use as classrooms.  It was the use of these temporary buildings as classroom space that sparked a student strike in 1951.

The student leaders responsible for the strike were from families who were all long-term residents of the surrounding area.  One student leader, Barbara Johns, had a family distinguished by activism.  Barbara was the niece of Vernon Johns, the legendary minister who served in the Dexter Street Baptist Church the ten years prior to Martin Luther King, Jr.  Vernon Johns was an outspoken critic of segregation and involved in numerous protest attempts throughout his career.  Even though he was in Montgomery, Alabama, at the time of the student strike, community members reported that he was influential in giving advice to the striking students.  His wife was a former teacher in the Robert Moton High School, and he still had numerous familial ties in the community of Farmville and the surrounding area.

The Johns family knew the social politics of the area.  Farmville is an hour and a half southwest of Richmond, on the same route Robert E. Lee followed during his retreat from Richmond in the spring of 1865.  Farmville is just two miles from where the

Confederacy made its last stand at the battle of Sailor=s Creek.  Even in 1950 life in the rural south still carried certain risks for African American adults whose livelihoods were inextricably linked to a grouped of whites who controlled commerce in the area.  Opinion was divided within the African American community over whether segregated conditions in Farmville should be challenged. 

The Reverend Francis Griffin considered the situation unacceptable and used every opportunity to address the need for change.  As President of the local NAACP and Chair of the Moton High School PTA he was well positioned to push for change.  Together with school principal M. Boyd Jones, they petitioned the school board to address the obvious disparity in the schools by asking for a new building to replace Moton High.  After several months of inactivity by school officials the stage was set for the Moton students, frustrated with their circumstances, to take action. 

On April 23, 1951 a student strike organized largely by Barbara Johns was underway.  School principal Jones was called away by a false claim of racial problems at the bus station downtown.  With him absent the students assembled under pretense of a school sanctioned gathering and Barbara spoke of the plan to strike.  The strike amounted to students walking out of school with instructions, from strike leadership, not to leave the school grounds.  Some of the students were given signs to carry that expressed their goal of better facilities.  With the strike underway Barbara Johns and classmate Carrie Stokes sought legal counsel from the NAACP in Richmond.  The students received a response in the form of a commitment by NAACP attorney, Oliver Hill agreeing to meet with them.  The strike lasted ten days.  Hill promised that action would be taken on their behalf, with that, the students returned to school on May 7, 1951. 

After a month of legal maneuvering a suit was filed in Federal Court by Oliver Hill's colleague, Spottswood Robinson siting the student=s complaint.  Surprisingly when the case was filed it did not carry the name of Barbara Johns as its lead plaintiff.  It was by happenstance that the first student listed was a ninth grade girl, daughter of a local farmer.  Her name was Dorothy Davis.  The Virginia case was filed as Dorothy E. Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County.  After filing this case Spottswood Robinson immediately traveled to South Carolina where the case of Briggs v. Elliot was about to be heard in another Federal Court.