The African-American Schools of Louisa County

"The eagerness of the freed Negroes to learn to read and write prompted them to look for teachers and offer places
where schools could be opened.”

Zelda C. Morton, Supervisor of Negro Education in Louisa County, 1926-1945

The story of African-American education begins before the county was created in 1742.  At that time, it was legal to educate both slaves and free blacks.  However, fears of slave uprisings led Virginia to pass Black Laws in 1831 making it illegal to teach African-Americans, slave or free, to read or write.  Thus the sixty percent of Louisa County’s total population which was African-American in 1860 was forbidden by law to be educated.  Although there existed a few free black persons before the Civil War, most remained in slavery until 1865 when they were granted both release from bondage and the challenge of learning to live as free men and women.    

Shady Grove School, 1923
Photo of G. Walter Hayden and unknown youth, taken in 1923 by State Supervisor
of Negro Education W. D. Gresham during a visit to the Shady Grove school, Louisa, Virginia.

Economic conditions in Louisa County were extremely difficult in the aftermath of the war. Combined tax revenues in 1870 were one-fourth of what they had been in 1863, when property tax on slaves alone earned the county $58,389.  The post-war Virginia Constitution of 1869 mandated the creation of free public education for all.  However, the act which created the public school system also directed that “white and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school but in separate schools under the same general regulations as to management, usefulness, and efficiency.”  Louisa County’s public school system began to operate with meager funds in 1871. It was divided into four districts; Green Springs Court House,  Cuckoo and Jackson

"We Are Hopeful of Better Conditions." 

In 1949, Zelda C. Morton, retired Supervisor of Negro Education, wrote one of the earliest accounts of the history African-American schools in Louisa County.  She begins her narrative just after the Civil War: "The eagerness of the freed Negroes to learn to read and write prompted them to look for teachers and offer places where schools could be opened. A few Negroes had acquired some education and where one could be found, he was sought and paid for his services. In some instances they were able to hire white teachers. The first Negro teacher to teach in Green Springs District was one William James Lucas who taught at Mechanicsville. He was a talented speaker and had much influence in developing citizenship...We are hopeful of better conditions." Her entire narrative continues on the pages for the Green Springs  and Court House districts.

"All that was during Jim Crow."

In the decades immediately following the Civil War, efforts to create a public school system moved slowly.  Schools created for African-Americans in Louisa County were chiefly poorly equipped log cabins, church buildings or rooms in private homes.  The existence of these schools was due, in large measure, to the efforts of African-American churches and northern philanthropists.  Gradually, county revenues allowed teachers in the private schools to be paid by county funds. The first public school building school for black children was started in 1883 at Louisa Courthouse and would serve the community until 1926. By 1885, surprising equalities existed. For example, among the primary documents shown on the Jackson District page are district payroll vouchers.  They reveal that if teachers were paid by the county, they were paid the same whether they were white or black, male or female. 
  Aunt Dinah Robinson, Janitor Mineral High School

"I was friends with the janitor at the new consolidated school for whites. I never would have been allowed inside that school if it weren't that I helped him every evening for a short period of time. I'll always remember the white students had those beautiful tiled floors.  I'd help clean and shine those floors and think about the old motor oil they poured on our wooden ones. I guess they did that to keep the dust down." Related by a Louisa Training School graduate in a 2007 interview.

Photo: "Aunt" Dinah Robinson, Janitor at Mineral High School.
Louisa County Historical Society archives

Larger political and social movements began throughout the South that would soon reverse the progress toward equal citizenship for free blacks achieved during Reconstruction.  In 1902, Virginia joined other southern states in ratifying a new constitution requiring all prospective voters to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy test, effectively disfranchising most African-American voters.  An exemption was granted for military veterans and sons of military veterans, who were mostly white.  The constitution, which specifically insured racial segregation in public schools, was never put to popular vote.  By the early 20th century, white politicians had created legislation institutionalizing powerful racial segregation laws which came to be known as the Jim Crow Laws.  They would affect life for all Virginia's African-Americans for decades to come.

African-Americans outside the South responded by creating organizations to defend the civil rights of those legally disempowered in southern states.  Northern philanthropists created funds to pay for buildings and supervisors in southern black schools.  Two of these funds played a significant role in supporting schools in Louisa County: the Jeanes Fund (for Supervisors of Negro Education) and The Rosenwald Foundation (which helped fund the construction of modern schools).  As the following letter (dated July 1, 1920) from the State Superintendent in Richmond reveals, the need in Louisa County for outside assistance was critical.

Although economic limitations hindered progress toward better schools in Louisa County throughout the 1920s and 1930s, there was a significant discrepancy between funds provided for white and black schools as seen in this 1925-26 page from the county school board's ledger books. A county-wide League within the African-American community tirelessly petitioned the county school board to provide better schools for black children and buses to transport them, like those paid for by the county to transport white children.  When no county funds were forthcoming for buses, members of the league bought worn-out county buses or used pick-up trucks instead. The county consolidated its white schools in 1940 and many of the better school buildings which were no longer needed were converted to black schools, such as Rising Sun, Shannon Hill, and Shelfar.  The Supervisors of Negro Education in the 1940s and 1950s worked to consolidate Louisa County's African-American schools by closing the worst ones and improving educational resources at the others.

"Then came Civil Rights and times began to change." 

In May of 1954, the historic Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court ruling deemed racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional. The decision threatened the downfall of broader laws which segregated all areas of public life and set off a firestorm throughout the South. As was the case 100 years earlier, federal law and state law stood at odds with one another. Virginia's senator Harry S. Byrd coined the phrase "Massive Resistance" as his recommendation for how the state should respond to the court's ruling.

 The Louisa County Board of Supervisors joined many county governments across Virginia in opposing the desegregation of its schools.   The sentiments of the supervisors can be found in the following November 6, 1954 resolution:   "Whereas: It is believed that integration of white and negro students in the public schools of the Commonwealth of Virginia is against the best interests and contrary to the wishes of the great majority of both races...Be it Further Resolved, that the compulsory attendance law should be amended to exempt from its operation any child whose parents or legal guardian objects to integration in the public schools."  Private schools for white children sprang up for those who could afford to attend them.

Louisa County citizens, white and black, saw court battles rage in the following years over the closing of public schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk and Prince Edward County. The Louisa County School Board, aware of the need to improve conditions in African-American schools, had opened a new black high school, A. G. Richardson in 1953.  The school board continued to build several modern elementary schools for black children over the next decade in an attempt to make separate schools for African-Americans more equal to those provided for white children.  

Segregation, however, remained deeply entrenched.  In the towns of Louisa and Mineral, African-American citizens were still served through the back doors of white restaurants.  They were forbidden to use "white only" rest rooms and drinking fountains, or sit anywhere other than in the "colored" section at the movie theatre in Louisa.  They shopped at black groceries, not white ones, and rode separate buses to school. 

In outlying areas of the county, segregation in public places was less pronounced, as there was often only one grocery or hardware store to serve the whole community, white and black.   However, less moderate voices also existed within the county, including supremacist groups who tried to recruit increased support among whites. In Louisa County the violent Civil Rights conflicts that erupted elsewhere were avoided as leaders of both races continued to seek peaceful answers about how to fairly educate all the children in the county.

A decade after the 1954 Supreme Court decision on segregated schools, President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act 0n July 2, 1964. The act outlawed segregation in businesses such as theaters, restaurants, and hotels. It banned discriminatory practices in employment and ended segregation in public places such as swimming pools, libraries, and public schools. In April of 1965, President Johnson also signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which tied federal funding for schools to compliance with federally ordered desegregation.

In the fall of 1965, Louisa schools tried a Freedom of Choice plan, which allowed parents and students to choose which public school to attend. African-American educators, such as Mr. Spurgeon Moss and Mr. Harry Nuckols, encouraged a handful of students to choose to attend white schools.  The plan did not achieve desegregation in the eyes of federal officials, however.  After the federal government threatened to cut off federal funding if full integration was not achieved, Louisa County High School was integrated in the fall of 1969 and all segregation in the county's schools ended in September of 1970.

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Funding for this project was provided by The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and
The Louisa County Historical Society