RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Commonwealth University is launching an oral-history project that explores the Massive Resistance policy in Virginia during the 1950s and ‘60s.
The project will record the stories of hundreds of schoolchildren denied an education by the closure of the state’s public schools in defiance of the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports (http://bit.ly/oQtZxR) that the university is teaming up with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission to track down former students from five localities that closed their schools. The commission oversaw Virginia’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the public school closings.
The state-supported massive resistance policies – initiated in the late 1950s by U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., D-Va. — urged localities not to integrate their schools, as mandated by the 1954 Brown v. Board decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Public schools of Arlington County, Charlottesville, Norfolk, Prince Edward County and Warren County closed as a result of the policy.
White leaders in some localities founded academies for White children. Some Black children moved to live with family members out of state so they could attend school, but many stopped their education altogether.
Many of the state’s Massive Resistance records have been lost or destroyed, so the project is “the best opportunity we have to preserve that portion of Virginia’s history,” said Brenda Edwards, who oversees the King commission’s Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship program
Shawn O. Utsey, chairman of the Department of African American Studies at VCU, said the project also is meant to help former students, many of whom are now in their 60s, to get closure on that part of their lives. Starting this spring, the university will offer a class that teaches students how to record the oral histories.
“We don’t want to just get the story and leave,” Utsey said. “We want to begin to facilitate some healing.”
State Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, a former civil rights attorney who represented schoolchildren in the integration of Norfolk’s public schools and has referred to Massive Resistance as “a tragedy that tore Virginia apart,” is chairman of the King commission and working with the university on the project.
“We need to create a cadre of people who can help us preserve that history, and this is an outstanding way to do it,” Marsh said. “If we don’t learn from our history, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes.”