We don't want them in our schools: Black School Equality, Desegregation, and Massive Resistance in Southwest Virginia, 1920s-1960s

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Virginia Tech


This project examines the activism of Black parents, students, and citizens who fought to obtain school equality and desegregation from the 1920s until the 1960s in southwest Virginia and consequently the resistance from White residents and officials. Resistance to the status quo of inequality between Black and White schools in Pulaski County, Virginia began as early as the 1920s. This activism continued through the 1930s and 1940s, with it finally leading NAACP attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson collaborating with Pulaski citizens in 1948 to file a discrimination lawsuit in the case Corbin v. School Board of Pulaski County. The activism did not end here as once the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, Black residents in southwest Virginia localities such as Floyd, Galax, Grayson, and Pulaski worked together with NAACP attorney Reuben Lawson to file multiple lawsuits so Black students could attend White schools. Many of these lawsuits faced staunch resistance from White residents of these localities, even with the threat of closing schools due to Virginia's policy of Massive Resistance. I argue that looking at localities such as Pulaski, Floyd, Galax, and Grayson helps situate southwest Virginia into the larger context of Virginia history in terms of examining resistance, fighting for equality, and pushing desegregation in the area during the middle of the twentieth century. Black citizens in the western part of Virginia faced resistance from the White citizens, but they persevered with their activism in the courts and hometowns which ultimately contributed to the dismantling of segregated schools in Virginia. They pushed for equality within segregation and then for desegregation in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Examining the historiography of school equality and desegregation in Virginia demonstrates that there is an overgeneralization about the resistance which occurred in the western half of the state. Historians argue that the eastern part of the state saw more modes of resistance, especially Massive Resistance, due to the higher population of Black residents. On the other hand, they ignore the western part as they believe the same resistance did not occur due to a lower population of Black residents. I reject these notions as Massive Resistance found its way into southwest Virginia through either the threat of or action of closing schools. I have dug more deeply into the sources, such as trial transcripts, legal correspondence, school board records, petitions, court cases, testimony, newspapers, and oral histories to understand the avenues Black residents in southwest Virginia used to fight inequality and segregation.



Pulaski, Floyd, Grayson, Galax, Southwest Virginia, Calfee Training School, Christiansburg Institute, Brown v. Board of Education, Massive Resistance, Desegregation