The Year Virginia Closed the Schools

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The Year Virginia Closed the Schools (1959)
by Lenoir Chambers
3857708The Year Virginia Closed the Schools1959Lenoir Chambers

The Year Virginia Closed the Schools

So far as the future histories of this state can be anticipated now, the year 1958 will be best known as the year Virginia closed the public schools.

This was the year when the automatic operation of Virginia law, moving precisely as the state's governmental leadership and its General Assembly had provided, reached out to shut and lock the doors of a Warren County high school in Front Royal, of two schools in Charlottesville, and of three junior high schools and three high schools in Norfolk.

By that same act the state denied nearly 13,000 boys and girls, some 10,000 of them in Norfolk, the kind of education which the people of Virginia had in mind when they wrote into their Constitution with wide approval and great confidence these words:

"The General Assembly shall establish and maintain an efficient system of public free schools throughout the state." (The italics are ours.)

Had anyone said a few years ago that the abandonment of this fundamental doctrine, which generations of Virginians regarded as a foundation of modern life itself, he would have been called foolish and irresponsible. Yet the year 1958 witnessed this blunt reversal of the educational course of democratic America in these three communities in Virginia and for these nearly 13,000 young Virginians.

That is what has made the year just ended unique in Virginia history and, save for another school-closing in Arkansas, unique in American history. That is the shame of 1958.

It is not enough to say, as the state has said in effect, that closing nine schools and kicking nearly 13,000 young people out of public education to shift for themselves is justified by the difficulties of obeying the law.

Of course the difficulties are there. Of course the changing of the customs of decades is painful. Of course perplexities exist and prejudices intrude. Of course law is a hard problem in enforcement and requires the most serious consideration when it runs counter to the deep wishes of majorities of people in a broad region of the country—and of Virginia.

No one with knowledge of Southern life thinks there is anything easy about dealing with the situations that confront us all.

But the mark of Virginia's political shame is that in this confusion it found no better method than abandoning public education entirely rather than follow the courts' directions about admitting a few Negro children into all-white schools.

This is not a policy which Virginia can continue. It is so patently self-defeating that calmer judgment would find ways of getting rid of it even if it was not probable—as governmental leaders acknowledge—that the statutes for closing schools will be declared unconstitutional.

The punishment of innocent children is too severe. The desertion of a doctrine of education on which democracy itself rests runs too much against basic American convictions and beliefs, many of which originated or first found nobility of expression in Virginia. The damage in prestige is too grave. The loss in business, in commerce, in industry—in a state which just begins to realize that it has lagged in new efforts in these respects—is too costly even in prospect and in early results. It would be disastrous in the long run.

The year that has run out has carried Virginia, and especially Norfolk, where the penalty exacted has been the heaviest, far down a defeatist road. We cannot continue this way. The state is bound by every obligation of governmental principle and human dignity and decency, and its own self-interest, to find a better policy than the one we live under.

That policy is collapsing before our eyes. But there will be small gain, or none at all, if in substitution the government of Virginia thinks it can stand still, or move backward in a changing age. It cannot. The question Virginians must ask themselves on this New Year's Day is what they can, and will, do in 1959 to recover from the tragedy of 1958.

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Works published in 1959 would have had to renew their copyright in either 1986 or 1987, i.e. at least 27 years after they were first published/registered but not later than 31 December in the 28th year. As this work's copyright was not renewed, it entered the public domain on 1 January 1988.

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