PHILADELPHIA, PA - May 3 - When one of the original litigants in Brown vs. Board the landmark Supreme Court desegregation ruling closed their public schools rather than admit black students, the American Friends Service Committee stepped up to the plate.
In the fall of 1959, in an act of defiance of federal court orders to desegregate, the all-white Board of Supervisors of the Prince Edward County School District shut its doors. Segregationists in the county, with extensive support from across the South, immediately opened white-only private academies, freezing black students, and many low-income whites out of school for five years.
In response to this abhorrent breech of civil rights, The Service Committee relocated students with families in communities across the country where they could continue their education.
Civil Rights activist Jean Fairfax served as director of AFSCs comprehensive Southern program, which coordinated the effort. With its major focus on school desegregation, AFSCs Southern program extended through the south. Convinced of the value of intensive work in localities, AFSC strived to establish community-based projects where local leaders could be identified and supported.
By 1960, AFSC had become the lead agency in Prince Edward County coordinating regional and national efforts to respond to the desegregation crisis. The Service Committees leadership continued on the local, state and national level, and its unrelenting advocacy within the federal arena became a key to necessary change.
That summer, AFSC consultant, Irene Osborne, described the county and the situation:
Prince Edward County is a small rural county in south central Virginia, sixty-five miles west of Richmond, Virginia. It has a population of approximately 12,000, of which about 47% are Negroes. Negro children constitute 51% of the school population. The county seat is the little town of Farmville with a population of approximately 4,000. Small farm owners, both white and Negro, raise mostly tobacco, but large farms, owned by white people, use tenant farmers and sharecroppers. New industry has not been coming to the county, and there has been a steady stream of out-migration in the past ten years. Extremes of wealth and poverty pervade with new modern homes and large older houses along with sub- standard shacks, with no central heating and wood burning stoves for cooking. Most farm families have no plumbing, a few have no electricity, and in large section of the county.
By September of 1960, students in grades 7-12 were placed in ten local communities and six states: Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Later, after 1960, students were located in schools in Kentucky and Massachusetts as well.
Jean Fairfaxs extensive involvement as a director of AFSCs Southern program fueled her civil rights work for over 30 years. Jean went on to serve as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund community services director and as a dedicated committee and board member of many non-profit and religious organizations, including the World Council of Churches, National Public Radio, and Harvard Divinity School.
Today, the struggle for equal rights to quality education for people of color continues.
The Brown legacy has not been completely successful, states Roy Wilkins at AFSCs recent annual public gathering in Philadelphia that focused on the era. Citing the disproportionate number of poor minority children still remaining in public schools as one of the tell-tale signs, Wilkins urged all concerned to recommit to solving the problems that have not been solved; and to saving the children that have been ignored.
Wilkins won the Pulitzer Prize, along with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, for Watergate coverage in The Washington Post. Now a professor of history at George Mason University, he also served as assistant attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The AFSC Emergency Student Placement Program continued until 1965, a year after public schools were reopened in Prince Edward County. Amidst the chronological unfolding, drama and individual stories during these years, several major themes emerge in the full narrative of AFSC involvement in the county that are captured in words and photographs that can be found at the AFSC website, www.afsc.org.
Interestingly enough, in that same county almost a hundred years earlier in 1865, just a few weeks after Appomattox Philadelphia Friends organized schools for the children of former slaves. This was part of a broader response by Quakers to meet the urgent demands by black Americans for the education denied to them during slavery.
The American Friends Service Committee is a faith-based organization working for peace, justice and reconciliation in 22 countries of the world. With national headquarters in Philadelphia and regional offices in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Des Moines, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Pasadena, California; and Cambridge, Massachusetts, AFSC emphasizes people, not politics or ideology upholding the dignity and promise of every person.
The Service Committee has a remarkable history of involvement in domestic social justice issues, in addition to a strong background in peace advocacy and humanitarian aid abroad. An active participant in the civil rights movement, AFSC continues to confront institutions that infringe, impede or ignore the civil rights of all people living in the United States.