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Shuttered Schools Leave Bad Memories

From 1959-64, a Virginia county closed its classrooms rather than integrate them. Now, former students will get diplomas.

June 08, 2003|Larry O'Dell | Associated Press Writer

Rita Moseley was in the sixth grade in 1959 when Prince Edward County, Va., closed its public schools rather than integrate them as the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered.

After two years with no formal schooling, young Rita was sent nearly 140 miles to Blacksburg to live with two educators and resume her education.

"The saddest moment in my entire life was seeing my mother get in the car and drive away," Moseley said. "I can't imagine the pain my mother felt having to leave her child with strangers."

Moseley and others affected by the 1959-1964 school closing will be looking for healing June 15 when they return to Farmville to receive honorary diplomas from the Prince Edward County school board. Some will come from as far away as California, said Erenest Miller, Prince Edward High School assistant principal.

"People seem to have been waiting for an opportunity to participate in something like this," Miller said. "It's going to be kind of a reunion."

This reunion promises to be emotional.

"I've been surprised how many people could not talk about their experience without tears, and how many others could not talk about it at all," said Moseley, a secretary at the high school who helped organize the event. "I didn't realize the impact and how it destroyed so many lives."

Moseley returned to Prince Edward after the schools reopened and graduated from Robert R. Moton High School, where a walkout by the all-black student body in 1951 led to one of the court cases that became part of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. The Moton building was retired from service in 1995 and is now a National Historic Landmark.

The ruling declaring segregated schools unconstitutional prompted the policy of "massive resistance" to integration in Virginia and some other Southern states. Prince Edward became the only county in the nation to close its schools for an extended period rather than integrate.

A private school was established for white students. Many black children, and a few whites, never returned to school; others obtained an education elsewhere.

"We all were shortchanged educationally because of this, even the ones who went away to school," Moseley said. "Families were torn apart, separated or had to move. Friends were left behind. It's devastating, really."

Dorothy Holcomb, who was in the fourth grade when the schools closed, was luckier than most. She was tutored for two years before her father rented a ramshackle house in adjoining Appomattox County solely to get Dorothy and her brother into school there.

Every day for a year, Holcomb's father drove the children from their home in Prince Edward to their phony address in Appomattox, where they were picked up by the school bus in the morning and dropped off in the afternoon to wait for a ride back home with their dad.

"One significant thing I remember is that our mom started working outside the home because it was expensive to try to keep two places going," said Holcomb, now a member of the school board and manager of the Virginia Employment Commission office in Farmville.

Her father eventually fixed up the Appomattox house and moved the family there, and Holcomb graduated from that county's now-defunct Carver-Price High School in 1968. Only after she became an adult did she fully appreciate her parents' sacrifices.

"My dad made it positive for me," Holcomb said. "He didn't let us think about the disadvantages. When you get older, you realize, 'Hey, that's really something he did for me.' "

Moseley said that while many members of Prince Edward's "lost generation" remained justifiably angry for years, she tried to keep a positive outlook for the sake of her children.

"I didn't want my children to grow up with that type of bitterness, so I never even talked about it that much," she said. "I never said anything ugly about it."

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