In 1951, in one of the earliest demonstrations of the modern Civil Rights movement, 450 black students at Robert R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia staged a walkout to protest the conditions of their school in contrast to the county's spacious and modern white school. The eight-room black school was built to accommodate 180 students, but it soon became overcrowded with 450 students. The county school board responded by building adjacent tarpaper shacks. Classes that couldn't fit in the school or shacks were held in an old school bus.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that segregated schools were inherently unequal, and NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall defended the students in a class action lawsuit to desegregate the schools. The NAACP eventually combined Davis v. the County School Board of Prince Edward County with four other cases to form Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, overturning the previously established "separate but equal" doctrine. However, the power to enforce the Court's ruling fell to the states, and many Southern states refused to comply, even after the Supreme Court ruled in 1955 that states must act "with all deliberate speed."
In 1959, two years after President Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, schools in Virginia remained segregated. When a federal court ordered that schools integrate or face the loss of state funding, most districts complied. But the all-white school board in Prince Edward County defied the court order and instead closed the public schools. The school closings denied both black and white students access to education. , Most white families, assisted by state funding, enrolled their children in private schools. As a ninth-grade teacher in Farmville, Vanessa Venable lost her job. As a parent, she had to find the means for her children to continue their educations.
In 1960, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) created the Emergency Placement Project, placing students from Prince Edward County with host families in other counties or states so that they could attend school. Venable and her daughter eventually left the rest of their family for Charlottesville, where Venable got a job teaching while her daughter attended a local high school. Leaving home "was a matter of destroying our home life almost completely," Venable recalls.
Venable's children fared better than most. Prince Edward County schools remained closed for five years, leaving 1,700 black students and some white students with no access to public education. Supported by the NAACP, a local minister named L. Francis Griffin (nicknamed "the fighting preacher") sued the school board over the closings. The case eventually went before the Supreme Court. In 1964, the Supreme Court reaffirmed in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County that segregated schools were unconstitutional and gave federal courts the power to reopen the schools.