Robert Russa High School was constructed in 1939 in Prince Edward County, Virginia during the era of segregation. The building is historically significant as the site of a 1951 protest against inferior and separate accommodations for black students that became one of the five cases at the center of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board decision. The brick building offered eight classrooms, an auditorium, and an office. However, due to the lack of funding provided by the county, the school quickly became overcrowded as twice as many students attended the school than the building was meant to accommodate. In contrast to the white schools, this building offered no gym, science laboratories, gymnasium, or cafeteria. In addition, the highest paid teacher within the school was paid less than the lowest salary offered to a white teacher in the entire county.
A strike took place in 1951 led by 16-year-old student Barbara Johns. Johns carefully planned her protest, calling the school’s principal and asking him to go to the bus stop to pick up two students who had allegedly skipped school. While the principal was gone, Johns led a meeting in the auditorium and convinced the student body to go on strike the following day to demand a better school.
Johns and several other students went on strike until the school board promised the build a new building. They wanted new facilities instead of the desegregation of the facilities. The morning of 1951, students gathered to make a plan that was greeted with overwhelming student support. Students picketed the school, inside and outside, with placards. Those cards read, “We want a new school or none at all” and “Down with tarpaper shacks.” They were told that nothing could be done until they returned to class.
A person from the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who was working to find challenges to the segregation laws of Southern states convinced the student’s parents that the strike would only succeed if they attacked segregation through the courts rather than simply asking for a better school.
On April 25th, 1951, two lawyers from the Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Oliver W. Hill, and Spottswood Robinson III, received a call from the striking students. The NAACP argued that segregation was unequal and had to be dismantled. On April 26th, 1951, there was a mass meeting in the school’s auditorium, Virginia NAACP Executive Secretary Lester Banks informed the students and parents of the organization’s willingness to take on legal actions to end the case of segregation. With that being said, there was little objection.
Johns' protest led to integration, but it also spawned a “massive resistance” movement among many Southern whites who responded to the Supreme Court’s decision by threatening to shut down the public schools. As a result of white protests, the schools of Prince Edward County were closed between the years of 1959 to 1964. White students were accommodated in "private schools" while black students had to leave the county and live with relatives to attend school during these years.
On January 19th, 1959, federal and state court simultaneously rules that the state’s action was considered unconstitutional. The Prince Edwards County Board of Supervisors shut down public schools. They did so instead of integrating them. In 1971, white became apart of the school which made up 5% of the school. By the early 21st century, the student population was about 60% black and 40% white. From 1930-1939, the schools in Prince County that blacks attended had one year added to the elementary school. The county offered didn’t offer anything beyond elementary school in 1930. In 1950, there were 477 students in the school.
Robert Russa Moton High School. WE SHALL OVERCOME HISTORIC PLACES OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. . Accessed March 28, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/v1.htm.
Heinemann, Ronald L. Moton School Strike and Prince Edward County School Closings. ENCYCLOPEDIA VIRGINIA. . Accessed March 29, 2018. https://www.encyclopediaVirginia.org/Moton_School_Strike_and_Prince_Edward_County_School_Closings.
Robert Russa Moton High School. . Accessed March 28, 2018. https://civilrightstrail.com/attraction/robert-russa-moton-high-school/.