History, Segregation in 1950s Louisa County

Learning more about Louisa County can help put the oral history interviews into context. It can be helpful to understand what the social, economic, and political landscape of Louisa County was like in the 1950s when listening to the interviews.
Cultural Narrative: 

Beginning in the 1930s, African American plaintiffs filed lawsuits to end school segregation. Finally, in 1951, a case arose in Prince Edward County, Virginia, only some 70 miles from Louisa County. Led by Barbara Johns, African American students at Robert R. Moton High School staged a strike to protest the poor facilities at their school. The case, Davis v. Prince Edward County, became one of five cases that comprised the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Under Brown v. Board, the Supreme Court ruled that the state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th amendment and was therefore unconstitutional

Unfortunately, Brown v. Board of Education was not the end of racial segregation in public schools. Virginia’s state government adopted a policy of “Massive Resistance” to block school desegregation. The governor, Thomas B. Stanley, closed public schools in several cities to prevent them from integrating. In 1959, the courts ruled that these closings were unconstitutional, and those school reopened. However, Prince Edward County refused to integrate and locked its doors. For five years, Prince Edward schools remained closed while legal challenges bounced between different levels of the judicial system. During that time, many white children attended the new private school created by segregationist leaders and funded by state tuition grants and private donations, while about 1,700 African American and low-income white students scrambled to find other options or simply stayed at home.

Many white residents of Louisa County fought against school desegregation. In fact, the County had its own chapter of the “Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties,” a political group dedicated to strict segregation in Virginia schools. In 1956, the group took out a full-page newspaper ad that pleaded with fellow Virginians to vote “against enforced MIXED schools” by allowing the government to give monetary grants for private school tuition. These private schools would not have to adhere to the same integration standards that public schools would, but they would retain the same monetary support from the government. In short, this tactic was a way to get around school desegregation. Hundreds of Louisa County residents publicly signed their name in support of this resolution. Underneath the list of names printed in the newspaper, it says that these men and women were “the leaders in Louisa County in every walk of life; farming, business, manufacturing, in politics and in the professions.” This was certainly true. Among the names, one can find beloved family doctors and dentists, as well as the parents of many of our interviewees’. The Defenders’ membership list reveals how opposing school integration was a very popular, respectable choice for white residents in Louisa County in the 1950s.

In addition to segregated public schools, segregation and discrimination was a daily reality for our interviewees in the 1950s. From the places Louisa County residents ate to types of entertainment they enjoyed, two separate, and inherently unequal communities existed. As Jerry Hall, a white interviewee born in Mineral in 1939 plainly described, “The slogan of the day was separate but equal, but it wasn’t equal.” African American interviewees recalled not being able to sit on the front of buses and trains. They recalled not being served in many stores and restaurants. They recalled not feeling very welcome in Mineral in particular, as stares and hushed rumors suggested they might run into trouble, particularly if they stayed there after dark. Additionally, many faced life-or-death situations when they were forced to go to separate, underfunded hospitals when they were ill. One of the more devastating scenes from our interviews, Homer Robinson, Jr., an African American Louisa County resident, said a fellow white soldier refused to share a hotel room with him on their way back from the Korean War. African Americans’ willingness to die for their country did not even protect them from such blatant demonstrations of racism in Louisa County.

Most interviewees, both black and white, had become so accustomed to these racial injustices that they simply recounted: “that’s just the way it was.” Many recalled, as white interviewee Thomas Leckie put it, that “there was a general sense of how people were supposed to act based on their race.” However, few interviewees, African American or white, recounted any individual, racial animosity in the 1950s. In that way, these first-hand accounts testify to the differences between structural and interpersonal racism. For example, white interviewees claimed to have no problem with African Americans, but they rarely interacted with them because of legally sanctioned segregation. Moreover, many white interviewees claimed they saw everyone as equal, but they served African American workers’ food on the porch because “that’s just the way it was….they didn’t expect to sit at the table.” Similarly, African American interviewees recounted being denied the same opportunities as their white counterparts, but they almost unanimously said they got along with the white members of their communities. While there some egregious acts of individualized racism recounted in these interviews, it seems that an overriding spirit of civility between the races often existed alongside these structural inequalities. White and black residents of Louisa County could be neighbors and friends, even if they could not eat at the same restaurants or go to the same schools.

As the decade progressed, change was certainly in the air in Louisa County. In the next decade, Civil Rights victories would begin to dismantle these more visible forms of de jure segregation. These changes would allow African Americans to sit in diner booths and vote without paying a poll tax. However, the struggle for racial equality continues even to this day. It is our hope that these oral history interviews will shed light on the history of racism in Louisa County and open up avenues of research and conversations to pursue racial justice.