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Brown v. Board of Education: Virginia Responds
An Exhibition at the Library of Virginia
Originally Displayed December 2003—June 2004.

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational  opportunities? We believe that it does. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

With these words, the United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision on May 17, 1954, ruled that de jure school segregation was unconstitutional and paved the way for desegregation of educational institutions. The story of the Court's ruling and its aftermath is one of slow and steady chipping away at old laws and customs to achieve equal rights for all Americans. Legal segregation had existed under the "separate but equal" doctrine, but in most instances the separate educational facilities and opportunities the Southern states offered to African Americans were inferior, not equal, to those for white Americans. From the 1930s to the 1970s lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People used the courts to achieve equal pay for African American teachers and equal facilities and curriculum for African American students.

These web pages explore Virginia's reaction to the Brown decision, especially through the letters and petitions of individual citizens and organizations sent to elected officials.  Responses to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling ranged from enthusiastic approval to bitter opposition. The General Assembly adopted a policy of "Massive Resistance," using the law and the courts to obstruct desegregation. In 1958 the governor closed schools in Warren County, Norfolk, and Charlottesville rather than allow them to desegregate under court order. The following year, state and federal courts invalidated Virginia's "Massive Resistance" statutes, but public schools in Prince Edward County, where the Virginia case against segregated school had originally been filed, remained closed for five years as some white Virginians fought desegregation of schools. In the end, the public's support for public schools overrode the desires of some Virginians to maintain racial segregation.