Griffin v. County School Board turned 60 this weekend. What is it?

Published 6:20 am Sunday, May 26, 2024

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The story doesn’t end with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. In fact, reactions to that case sparked Civil Rights battles for more than a decade, with a major anniversary taking place this past weekend. Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, yet another Supreme Court battle.

Yes, we’ve heard of “massive resistance”, the fight by Virginia’s government against integration. But in Farmville and Prince Edward County as a whole, that took on an entirely different look.

Prince Edward County’s Board of Supervisors decided in June 1959 to not appropriate any funding at all for the school system, rather than integrate. That meant all public schools in the county had to close for what eventually became a five-year period.

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“We were like the lost generation,” said Farmville Vice Mayor Chuckie Reid. “When they announced schools being closed, you think ok, it’ll be a day, two days, a week. But your week turned into a month, your month turned into five years.”

Prince Edward gave tuition grants to students, instead of opening schools, to be used at private schools. But there were no private schools in the region that allowed Black students, so from 1959 to 1963, Black children in Prince Edward County were left out.

“It was something you had to deal with,” Reid said. “In the beginning, you didn’t know (what was happening). You’re young, so you think, oh, no school’. But it became something you had to deal with.”

An entire community deals with ruling

It was something an entire community had to deal with. Children were being kept out of the only classrooms available. A 1964 study done by Dr. Robert L. Green of Michigan State found that out of 1,700 Black school age children in the county, an estimated 1,100 had received almost no formal education during the period schools were closed. In the post-pandemic world, we discuss learning loss because students weren’t able to be in class for one semester or a full year for some. More than triple that and you start to have an idea of what was taken away.

And this is where Francis Griffin enters the conversation. That is, he enters the conversation for a second time. Rev. L. Francis Griffin was a mentor and supporter of Barbara Rose Johns and the other students in that 1951 strike at Moton High. He helped connect them with NAACP attorney Oliver Hill, which led to the legal case being filed.

People called Rev. Griffin the Martin Luther King Jr. of Farmville. He also earned a nickname as “The Fighting Preacher,” both locally and nationally. Griffin was focused on the social gospel during his life, speaking out against injustice whenever he saw it. The Farmville preacher’s words back that up, as he was repeatedly quoted as saying he believed “in the care of people here on Earth and in the hereafter,” following what he found in the teachings of Jesus. And while his own legal case may not be as well-known nationally as Brown v. Board of Education, it was in many ways a followup to that situation.

Who was Rev. Griffin?

Born in 1917, Griffin was both a civil rights advocate and a local minister. He served as pastor of Farmville’s First Baptist Church, over on South Main Street.

“For the time, he did not have a traditional approach to pastoring,” said Cainan Townsend, executive director at the Moton Museum. “Preachers were expected to preach a sermon, perform weddings and bury people. But, Griffin didn’t just believe and preach on individual sin but institutional sin.”

In the period after the Brown v. Board ruling, Rev. Griffin got involved in the ‘Lost Generation’s’ cause. He created the Prince Edward County Christian Association in 1959, organizing local leaders and resources to help support the students locked out of school.

But Griffin knew more was needed. And so, he went to court.

Defining Griffin v. County School Board

Francis Griffin had several children were not allowed to attend any private schools since they were Black. As we mentioned, public schools in Prince Edward were closed at the time and private schools were just that, able to allow or disallow whoever they wanted. He filed a lawsuit, challenging the supervisors’ decision.

And so, for the second time in a decade, Prince Edward County ended up in court. This time, it also went before the U.S. Supreme Court, in the March 1964 Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County case.

After two months of discussion and debate, the justices ruled Prince Edward’s decision to close all local public schools and provide vouchers for students to attend private school was constitutionally impermissible. That’s because it violated parts of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Black students didn’t have the same opportunity as others in the district, because none of the private schools would accept them.

“The District Court may, if necessary to prevent further racial discrimination, require the Supervisors to exercise the power that is theirs to levy taxes to raise funds adequate to reopen, operate, and maintain without racial discrimination a public school system in Prince Edward County like that operated in other counties in Virginia,” justices wrote in the majority opinion.

Just as Barbara Rose Johns and her fellow students set a national Civil Rights standard, so did Francis Griffin. His Supreme Court case set a precedent, detailing that a county can’t withdraw or give up on its obligation to provide public education for everyone.