Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, triggered years of continued litigation related to the issue of desegregation of public schools throughout the United States. Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1964), a case decided 10 years after Brown, reflects the nature of some of this litigation, particularly cases involving a number of states that sought alternative educational methods to avoid compliance with Brown. At issue in Griffin was whether states that close their public schools and use public funds to support private, segregated schools are acting constitutionally and consistently with the Brown decision. The Supreme Court forcefully rejected this strategy.

Facts of the Case

In Brown (1954), the Supreme Court held that in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. According to the Court, segregated educational facilities are inherently unequal. In a companion case, often referred to as Brown II (1955), the Court recognized that consideration should be given to lower courts to fashion remedies connected with Brown that would promote desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” The purpose of this ruling was to allow lower courts to settle individual complaints on a case-by-case basis and maintain jurisdiction while school districts made efforts toward compliance with Brown.

Unfortunately, during the years immediately after Brown, many school boards experimented with various devices to avoid desegregation. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, one of the most blatant efforts at avoiding desegregation occurred: The county closed all the public schools. Families were directed to send their children to private schools that were segregated, and state and local funding was provided to these private schools. Later, a state appellate court struck this legislation down as unconstitutional.

As a result, in 1959, the state legislature turned to a freedom-of-choice program. The Fourth Circuit ordered officials in Prince Edward County to stop discriminatory practices and directed the school board to take immediate steps toward admitting students to the White high school without regard to race and also to have local educational officials make admission plans for students to attend elementary schools without regard to race.

In response, the county supervisors resolved they would not operate public schools where White and colored children were taught together. Therefore, they refused to levy school taxes for the year. The county’s public schools did not reopen and remained closed until 1964, when Griffin was decided. A private group formed to operate private schools for White children in the county, while Black families continued the legal battle for desegregation of public schools.

Black children were without formal education from 1959 to 1963, when some classes were held for Black and White children in county school buildings. At that time, the public schools in Prince Edward County were closed, while public schools in all other counties of Virginia were being maintained. A federal trial court found that the Black students were denied equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, but the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia upheld the statute closing Prince Edward County’s public schools.

The Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court reviewed the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, holding that the law unquestionably treated schoolchildren of Prince Edward County differently than the way it treated schoolchildren of other Virginia counties. Under the statute, due to the closing of all public schools, children in Prince Edward County had to attend private schools or none at all. The Supreme Court reasoned that the closing of the public schools weighed more heavily on Black children, since the White children could attend accredited private schools, while Black children had to either attend temporary schools or not attend school. Further, the Court pointed out that all the private schools were racially segregated but received state and county financial support.

The Supreme Court maintained that while the Commonwealth of Virginia had wide discretion in deciding whether or when laws operate statewide, the record in Prince Edward County demonstrated that public schools were closed and private schools were operated in their place, with state and county funding, for only one reason: to ensure that White and Black children in the county would not go to the same school. The Court explained that the closing of the Prince Edward County schools denied Black students equal protection of the law.

Giving voice to its frustration, the Court added that the time for desegregating “with all deliberate speed,” consistent with Brown, had run out and that there was no justification for denying the children their constitutional rights to an education equal to that afforded by the public schools in other parts of Virginia. The Court concluded that a decree should be issued guaranteeing students in Prince Edward County the kind of education that was available in all state public schools.

Griffin is noteworthy as an example of the challenges brought by schools in states and counties that resisted compliance with Brown. Prince Edward County chose to close down its entire public school system and fund private schools rather than integrate its public school system. Griffin represents a series of cases decided by the Supreme Court in which states, in an effort to avoid compliance with Brown, created various methods for addressing desegregation that ultimately resulted in constitutional challenges. Over time, with the advent of cases such as Griffin, schools throughout the United States have done much to comply with Brown and address the serious concerns of racial discrimination in public education.

Vivian Hopp Gordon

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education and Equal Educational Opportunities; School Boards

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