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Students in Virginia county protest inadequate school facilities for Black students

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's follow up now on a landmark moment in American history. Seventy years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in schools. The old doctrine of separate but equal left many students learning in schools that were not equal at all. So after 70 years, what has changed, and what hasn't, in one Virginia community? Megan Pauly of member station VPM reports.

MEGAN PAULY, BYLINE: In 1951, Black students in Farmville, Va., walked out of the segregated Robert Russa Moton High School in protest of their school facility conditions which were inferior to those of their white peers. John Stokes helped organize the strike.

JOHN STOKES: They had put up tarpaper shacks that were not fit for animals. It leaked in there. It had no real siding. So we knew we were being programmed for failure.

PAULY: At Moton, many Black students learned in dilapidated shacks built out of the same material as chicken houses. The strike continued for two weeks and lawyers with the NAACP took up the students' case as Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board. It would eventually become part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court. The school students walked out of is now the Robert Russa Moton Museum, where Cainan Townsend serves as executive director.

CAINAN TOWNSEND: You see Mildred Juanita, Arlene Shirley and then John Townsend are represented.

PAULY: These names on a plaque at the museum are his relatives, and they were among the nearly 200 plaintiffs in the Davis case. The museum is dedicated to telling their story, along with the county's racist history of closing schools for five years rather than integrate them. Townsend's father was among those who had no school to go to when he was 6 years old.

TOWNSEND: When the schools do reopen in '64, they were open, but they were severely underfunded, and I mean, they put enough money in to turn lights on, and that was it. And pay the staff.

PAULY: Eventually, newer schools were built. But now decades later, these schools are, again, largely in a state of disrepair. For a population of nearly 2,000 students that is majority Black. A third of the student body is white. Townsend said, in a way, history is repeating itself. He said on tours of the museum, local students have compared the conditions of their school to those tarpaper shacks.

TOWNSEND: Talking about tarpaper shacks. I'm like, yeah, when it rained it poured inside the classroom, so these kids would have to have umbrellas over their heads to try to keep the papers from getting wet. The kids are like, yeah, our classroom leaks really bad, too, kind of like those shacks.

PAULY: The county's only elementary school was built in 1970. There have been so many leaks at the school that they developed a contraption to funnel all of the leaking water into one spot. There's a plan to renovate it, but funding the project is still in the works.

MARY FILARDO: We know from looking at the spending that poor minority communities have had far less capital investment than more affluent communities.

PAULY: That's Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. She says spending on school construction is an equity issue, and learning in spaces that aren't welcome and in need of repair is problematic.

FILARDO: And they really do serve as barriers to the education and the health of the children that are in them.

PAULY: The state of Virginia has spent a lot less on school construction over the last decade compared to many other states. Earlier this year, Virginia's legislature passed a bill to allow communities to ask voters for a 1% sales tax to support schools. But it was vetoed by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, who said the state is already spending enough on education, and he doesn't want to raise taxes.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Pauly in Farmville, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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