Lessons from the Past for the Present and Future- A Virginia History
Since Virginia’s infancy, African-Americans have advocated for, built, and championed public education for all Virginians.
This support for public education by African-American government officials, educators, families and students has provided lessons learned, which are relevant in today’s quest for quality public education for all now and in the future.
The first laws prohibiting education of black Virginians came as backlash to one of the most well-known slave revolts in America which took place in Virginia in Southampton County. Nathaniel (Nat) Turner was an enslaved man who led a rebellion of enslaved people on August 21, 1831. In response in 1831, the Virginia General Assembly made it a criminal offense to receive a salary for teaching enslaved people and prohibited assembling classes of free blacks for the purpose of teaching them.
In 1867, the US Congress required Virginia to write a new state Constitution. Virginia’s first post-Civil War Constitution was ratified in July 1869, and included an article for the state’s first system of public schools.
During the post-Civil War state constitution convention, African American Convention delegate Thomas Bayne, who had escaped from slavery, introduced an amendment to the education clause requiring the schools to be “free to all classes, and no child, pupil or scholar shall be ejected from said schools on account of race, color, or any invidious distinction.” Another former enslaved person, African-American Constitution Convention delegate, Samuel F. Kelso introduced a resolution calling for free public education open to all on an equal basis under the new Virginia Constitution.
Despite the sincere efforts of these government officials to provide for equal access to quality, equitable public education for all people, regardless of race, creed, color, or other discriminatory factors, segregationist elements within the Constitution Convention prevailed. So, the Virginia public education system legislation was enacted with the inherent flaw of segregation as part of the law of Virginia.
Virginia’s public schools had been segregated racially since their inception in 1870. So, too, were the state’s public colleges and universities. With the passage of a new Virginia Constitution of 1902, large numbers of African Americans and working-class Whites were disenfranchised from their right to vote.
This constitutional change provided fewer government officials to counter the attempts by secessionists and white racist officials to deny all Virginians their citizenship rights to quality public education and participation in the government process.
The 1902 Constitution remained in effect until July 1, 1971, and did much to shape Virginia politics in the image of the old Confederacy by battling the civil rights movement, especially the federally mandated laws for public school desegregation.
For many Virginians whose forebears may have arrived in the US in the post-Civil War and post-Civil Right eras, this history may not appear relevant to guaranteeing current rights to a quality public education. However, such an assumption only leads to a greater vulnerability for contemporary groups of Virginians, such as Asian-Americans, Middle Eastern Americans, and Hispanic Americans to be denied their rights to access a quality public education and to participate in the governmental process by voting.
The means to accomplish these racist and segregationist goals for newer groups of Virginia citizens and residents have been previously established, vetted, and perfected through the laws and legislative enactment designed to suppress the rights of Whites, Indians (Native Americans), and African Americans.
The Virginia Racial Integrity Laws (1924–1930) legislation was passed to protect “whiteness” against what many Virginians perceived to be the negative effects of race-mixing, including:
The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 prohibited interracial marriage. It defined a white person as someone “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”
The Public Assemblages Act of 1926 required all public meeting spaces to be strictly segregated.
A 1930 act defined a person to be “black” who had even a trace of African American ancestry.
This way of defining whiteness as a kind of purity in bloodline became known as the “one drop rule.” These acts would remain in place until the Loving v Virginia Supreme Court case of 1967, but it took decades before the Virginia legislature condemned 1924 and 1930 laws in 2001.
Across the 1950’s, and as late as the 1970’s, Virginia authorities staged organized resistance to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school integration busing case to insure African American students received an equal education to that provided to white students. While Senator Harry Byrd spear-headed those efforts, many policy makers participated in organized resistance to equal education for black Virginians.
To counteract the inequality in the distribution of quality public education, local African American grass-roots activists and national organizations such as the NAACP began to form coalitions to counter the unjust legislation of segregationist government officials.
An early rural branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in Fairfax County, Virginia. In 1915, the Town of Falls Church proposed an ordinance to segregate black and white residential sections. Local African Americans formed the Colored Citizens Protective League and fought this ordinance. In 1918, the League became the Falls Church and Vicinity Branch of the NAACP.
This African American grass-roots activism is exemplified in the life’s work and accomplishment of pioneer Falls Church NAACP members and leaders EB Henderson and Mary Ellis Henderson.
In 1951, African American students, led by sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns, walked out of Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville to protest the school's poor condition. Students
and NAACP attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson filed a lawsuit in federal court to demand integration, instead of “equal” schools.
Their case became part of the landmark case, Brown vs. Board of Education. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954, that "separate, but equal" in public education is unconstitutional.
Since the inception of the British colony of Virginia in 1607, and later as the 10th independent State to ratify the Constitution of the United States in 1788, Virginia has and continues to be the epicenter for the struggle in our Nation between the ideas and actions of Unionist and Secessionist ideologists.
To their credit, Virginians were among the leaders of the American Revolution and of the events leading to it. Phrases like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “Give me liberty or give me death” were coined here in Virginia, but the full accomplishment of those ideals have yet to be achieved. And there are those today who would still block the opportunity for equal access to education.
Today’s quest for quality public education for all now and in the future follows in the footsteps of so many African American Virginians of the past. It is time now for contemporary Virginians to be the champions of equal education for all.
See accompanying PDF for a full collection of materials on Virginia Black History of Education:
Artwork: “The State Convention at Richmond, Va., in Session,” Remaking Virginia: Transformation Through Emancipation, accessed February 26, 2022, https://www.virginiamemory.com/online-exhibitions/items/show/602.