Timeline of School Desegregation in Virginia


Virginia's public school system was segregated from its very beginning in 1870. Courts ruled that separate facilities for blacks and whites were legal as long as they were equal.

Segregated schools were rarely equal. Black students had poor buildings, textbooks, and facilities compared to white students. White teachers were paid, on average, three times as much as black teachers in 1915. NAACP lawyers began filing suits in federal court in the late 1930s for equal teacher pay and schools. Lawsuits help to improve all levels of schools for African Americans but education remained unequal.

In 1951, African American students led by sixteen-year-old Barbara 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 v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954, that “separate, but equal” in public education is unconstitutional.

Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd called for “massive resistance” to the Brown decision. Virginia’s legislature passed laws to prevent desegregation. Many school districts resisted by closing schools for periods ranging from a day to five years. In some districts all white students left the public schools rather than attend integrated schools.

By 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court was dissatisfied with Virginia’s slow compliance with federal desegregation guidelines. The court ruled that districts must “ensure racial balance in schools.”

Local school boards changed school boundaries, built new schools and used busing to create integrated schools. Every school district in Virginia experienced some level of change from segregated to integrated schools.

Lawsuits against busing began to chip away at this success and resegregation of schools began. By 1988, integration peaked in the U. S. Afterwards schools in many cities became more segregated, not less.

Despite some setbacks, school desegregation and diversity remain a top priority for the U.S. Department of Education. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that school integration remains a “compelling national interest.”

The struggle for school desegregation is an important part of the American quest for justice and equality. The goal for the future is to ensure equal educational opportunities for everyone throughout the Commonwealth.

Separate and Unequal

• 1831  Blacks barred from schools.
• 1870  Segregated public school system created.
• 1896  Plessy v. Ferguson,  Supreme Court rules racial segregation legal - “separate but equal” doctrine.
• 1924  Racial Integrity Act passed. Native Americans are barred from white schools.
• 1936  Dovell Act is passed. Gives scholarships for black college students to be educated out of state.
• 1940  Federal court rules Norfolk School Board violated 14th Amendment by not paying black and white teachers equally.
• 1948  President Truman orders desegregation of Armed Forces. Chesterfield, King George, and Gloucester counties ordered to equalize black and white schools.
• 1950  Gregory Swanson enrolls in UVa Law School. First African American student at white school in Virginia. Black students admitted to Virginia Tech and the College of William & Mary –for programs not available at Virginia State College in next 5 years.

Virginia Leads the Way to Brown v. Board of Education

• 1951  Students in Farmville protest unequal conditions, then sue for an integrated school. Lawsuit becomes part of Brown v. Board of Education.
• 1954   Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas rules “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  Base school at Fort Myer is integrated by Dept. of Defense. Catholic schools in Richmond Diocese enroll sixty blacks in formerly white schools.
• 1955  Brown II.  Supreme Court rules that school desegregation must take place with “all deliberate speed.”

Virginia Massively Resists

• 1954  Defenders of State Sovereignty formed to oppose Brown decision. African American students sue for admission to white public schools.
• 1956  U.S. Senator Byrd encourages “massive resistance” to school desegregation. Massive Resistance laws are passed to “prevent a single Negro child from entering any white school.”
• 1958  Federal courts order nine white schools in Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk to admit black students. Governor J. Lindsay Almond closes those schools.
• 1959  White parents win suit against school closings in Norfolk. Federal and state courts rule Massive Resistance laws unconstitutional. Closed schools are reopened with limited integration. Arlington admits black students to white junior high school.
• 1959  Prince Edward County, refusing to integrate, closes public schools, locked until 1964. White students attend private school. Tuition grants for “segregation academies” begin.
• 1959  Virginia approves Freedom of Choice Plan. Few black students apply to transfer to white schools. Fewer are accepted.
• 1963  Surry School converted to white-only private school. County’s black schools remain open. Few white students attend public school for next 10 years.

Making It Real

• 1964  Supreme Court orders Prince Edward County schools reopened.
• 1964  Civil Rights Act passed.
• 1964  Public schools are opened to Native Americans.
• 1968  All public colleges now admitting both black and white students. Private colleges follow.  Supreme Court ends “freedom of choice” plans.
• 1969  Court ends state tuition grants to children attending segregation academies. Grants cost taxpayers $20 million.
• 1970  Governor Holton enrolls his children into previously all black schools in Richmond. Busing for racial balance begins.
• 1974  Supreme Court limits busing in Richmond.
• 1986  Norfolk becomes first city in country to end busing for racial balance.
• 1988  Desegregation of U.S. public schools generally peaks; after this, schools in many cities become more segregated.

Revised: 4/18/2013