On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education case that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. While the decision officially ended segregation it took much longer for the ruling to be enforced in certain areas of the country. The road to the Brown decision was long and circuitous but the resistance that teachers and students faced in trying to comply with the new laws was surprising even to people who lived in highly segregated areas.
During the production of Eyes on the Prize, creator and executive producer Henry Hampton did extensive research and Blackside conducted interviews with participants of school segregation cases including Eliza and Harry Briggs, Sr., their son, Harry Briggs, Jr. ( Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al.), Linda Brown Smith, the young girl whose name became synonymous with the landmark case, Dr. Kenneth Clark, a psychologist who testified about the negative effects of segregation on young African American children through his study known as the Doll Test, a public school teacher in Farmville, Virginia, Vanessa Venable, and James Bash, principal of Farmville High in 1954.
Gordon Parks, photographer. Dr. Kenneth Clark conducting “The Doll Test” with a young male child, 1947. Gelatin silver print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (62)
Three cases, Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al., Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al., and Brown v. Board of Education were filed in May and June of 1951. These cases started a flurry of other cases and in October of 1952, the Supreme Court agreed to bundle all the cases under the Brown case, in essence acknowledging that this was a national issue.
Interviews available online via the Eyes on the Prize transcript project give a deeper look into the fight to desegregate public schools. Even though, Hampton elected to focus on the Little Rock Nine case (1957), where students desegregated a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the final program rather than the lead-up to landmark case, the interviews Blackside conducted are an invaluable primary source for researchers.
In the Interview with Harry Briggs, Sr. and Eliza Briggs, the couple described how they and their son experienced retaliation for their part in the case,
Harry Briggs, Sr.:
Well, when we signed the petition, my wife was working to a motel. So they let her go. I was working to a gas station uptown, they let me go. So then that’s when I tried to farm…I was in the Army, so…they was giving you what they call a farm program, at $97 a month. And I farmed for two years, and I could live off that. That’s when I leave home. I leave my wife with five children, an old house, with using wood for heat, and I leave here…But I never regret it, what we did.
Mr. Briggs also described the retaliation taken against his son years after the case,
Well, he was—we call assistant driver. But, as I said, after everybody know Harry Briggs, so, when he come as Harry Jr., they said, “Sorry buddy, you won’t drive no bus in Clarendon County.”
“You’ll never see the day, Harry, you come to this school. You that caused this mess going on now.”
–Interview with Harry Briggs, Sr. and Eliza Briggs, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 25, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the local establishment’s reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education was one of the most extreme in the country. The school board elected to close down all public schools rather than integrate them. Blackside interviewed James Bash, the principal of Farmville High (in Prince Edward County) about what led to that decision,
The meeting was very interesting to me. It was set up in such a way that PTA presidents were on the stage of Jarmen Auditorium and Longwood College and a lot of other leading citizens…and each of the PTA presidents came to the microphone and made a statement about school desegregation and about having interviewed and talked to all the patrons in their particular school area, and not one was in favor of desegregation. So from then on, that time on, after all of the PTA representatives had made their statements they—it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the meeting was to decide, to make some kind of decision with respect to continuing public schools if they had to desegregate…there was a sense of agreement that the school should be closed.
Bash was advocating that the public schools remain open and that the district comply with the Brown decision. This did not make him a popular man in Prince Edward County. He describes the opposition and covert support he received from local people in her interview,
Well, as an illustration of one of things that would come up from time to time. There was a gentleman who was an owner of a furniture store in Farmville, who came to me one time…and he said, “Look, Bash,” he said, “I want to tell you something, and I want to tell you in a hurry because I don’t want to be seen standing here with you. I’m in favor of what you’re doing but,” he said, “I can’t be associated with it because it would kill my business.” He said, “I’m afraid, too, and everybody else is afraid so,” he said, “I just wanted you to know that.” He said, “If you’re principal here next year, my child will listen to you and you can rest assured of that, but I just can’t publicly be associated with what you’re fighting for…” Of course there were a lot on the other side too you know, of, there was some, there was some hate mail and there was a lot of avoidance behavior on the street. Even in the grocery stores, the check out clerks would sometimes turn their backs to us when we’d go through the check out stands in an effort to disassociate themselves with us, which was kind of sad, because we didn’t feel like we were a threat to anybody, that is, my wife and I.
There were schools that were closed all over the state as a result of the legislative enacted—what is popularly called Massive Resistance legislation.
—Interview with James Bash, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 6, 1986, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
The public schools were closed the following year, James Bash moved on to another job, and Prince Edward Academy, a privately funded school was opened for white students. This decision caused great disruption for many families in the area. Vanessa Venable, who was a public school teacher, describes what happened to her family in her interview,
Yes, most of our families were definitely broken up because of the situation. Our children had to go elsewhere to seek an education. The Friends Society out of New York came down and accepted a number of our girls and boys and carried them back to New York and put them into school. Others went to live with families. Some moved across the county line into Cumberland and their children went to school there. Some went into Buckingham County and so forth. But quite a few of them found a place to attend school, however, there were hundreds of them who had no schooling whatsoever for four years.
—Interview with Vanessa Venable, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 6, 1986, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
The public schools remained closed in Farmville until several attempts to legislatively challenge the Brown decision failed and the schools were forced to comply and desegregate. As in many part of the country, the Supreme Court decision was monumental, yet ran into resistance in many areas of the country. The battle had been won in court but continued to be tested and challenged in schools across the country.