R.R. Moton High School
R. R. Moton High School was built in 1939 by Prince Edward County, Virginia for African-American children, in the colonial-revival style common to school buildings in that era. It replaced several smaller one-room schools scattered around the County.
It had six classrooms and an office arranged around a central auditorium. It had no cafeteria or restrooms for teachers. Built to handle 180 students, already by the 1940s it struggled to hold 450; the County built long temporary buildings to house the overflow. Covered with roofing material, they were called the "tar-paper shacks." In 1953, a new county high school for Negroes was built, and R. R. Moton became an elementary school.
1951 school walkout
On April 23, 1951, a group of Moton High School students walked out of their school and into history. To protest the overcrowded and inferior facilities at their school, 16-year-old Barbara Johns (niece of civil rights pioneer Reverend Vernon Johns) organized and led a two-week strike, during which students refused to attend classes. The students called upon lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), including Oliver W. Hill, to help them in their struggle for equal educational opportunities.
The NAACP agreed to take the Prince Edward case on the condition that students and their parents would sue to desegregate the schools, rather than just equalize them. Moton students and their parents agreed, and the case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County advanced to the Supreme Court, along with four other cases that challenged segregation in public education. In May 1954, the Supreme Court would decide these five cases in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in public education unconstitutional. Although a constitutional victory had been won, implementation of the Brown decision involved decades of struggle. The state of Virginia imposed a policy of “massive resistance” that would effectively delay school desegregation until the 1960s.
In 1959, under federal court order to desegregate its schools, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voted not to fund the schools, causing them to close.
The school closings dramatically affected lives. Teachers lost their jobs. Families sent their children away to attend school. Many children simply did not go to school. Led by Rev. L. Francis Griffin of First Baptist Church, the locked-out students chose to demand their constitutional right to public education. It would be five years before public schools in Prince Edward County re-opened, after another Supreme Court ruling in Griffin v. County School Board, in 1964.
When the schools were closed in 1959, it housed a Free School sponsored by organizations from around the country. After schools reopened, it continued to be used as an elementary school until it was closed in 1993 after 56 years of service.
At the time of the school's final closure, the Martha E. Forrester Council of Women launched a movement to preserve it as a memorial to the struggle for civil rights in education. In 1998, R. R. Moton School was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Today Moton School stands as a stirring reminder of the struggle for Civil Rights in Education.Yet even more than a monument to the past, the Robert Russa Moton Museum stands as a monument to a community moving from a divided past into a common future. A 1994 New York Newsday report commended Prince Edward County as the only area involved in the Brown decision to desegregate its schools successfully and peacefully.
The Robert Russa Moton Museum serves as a Center for the Study of Civil Rights in Education, providing programs to explore the history of desegregation in education and to promote dialogue about community relations. The Moton Museum is also an anchor site of the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. The trail contains 41 sites across southside Virginia which depict the broadening of educational opportunities.
The museum houses exhibits containing Moton High School memorabilia, artifacts of the Civil Rights Movement, and oral histories of former teachers and students who recall their experiences of the student walkout and the school closings. Docents are available to give guided tours of the museum.
- Christopher Bonastia, Southern Stalemate: Five Years Without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
- Bob Smith, They Closed Their Schools. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.