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Black Leadership and Outside Allies in Virginia Freedom Schools

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Christopher Bonastia*
Lehman College and the CUNY Graduate Center (


In July 1963, students from Queens College (QC) and a group of New York City teachers traveled to Prince Edward County (PEC), Virginia, to teach local black youth in Freedom Schools. The county had eliminated public education four years earlier to avoid a desegregation order. PEC Freedom Schools represented the first major effort to recruit an integrated group of outside teachers and students to educate black students in a civil rights battleground over an entire summer.

In contrast to the racial and class tensions that arose between black leaders and predominantly white volunteers in other civil rights campaigns, PEC volunteers willingly deferred to the expertise of local and outside black leaders. This paper identifies the relatively modest scope and well-defined mission of the program, the real-world experiences of volunteers, and the high quality of black leadership as factors that led to this positive outcome.

Copyright © 2016 History of Education Society 

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1 The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) is the New York City affiliate of the AFT. In the historical record, the Prince Edward Freedom Schools are sometimes depicted as a UFT initiative, and other times as an AFT initiative. For a list of teaching volunteers, see AFT Teacher's Roster, Prince Edward County, Virginia, United Federation of Teachers Papers, series 2, subseries 2A, box 21, folder 5, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University (hereafter UFT Papers).

2 See, for example, Winifred Breines, The Trouble between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

3 John Egerton, “A Gentleman's Fight in Prince Edward County, Virginia,” in Shades of Gray: Dispatches from the Modern South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 124.

4 Christopher Bonastia, Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012). See also Jill Ogline Titus, Brown's Battleground: Students, Segregationists and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

5 Kara Miles Turner, “‘Liberating Lifescripts’: Prince Edward County, Virginia, and the Roots of Brown v. Board of Education,” in From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education and American Democracy, ed. Peter F. Lau (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 88–104.

6 August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, “The Origins of Nonviolent Direct Action in Afro-American Protest: A Note on Historical Discontinuities,” in Along the Color Line: Explorations in the Black Experience, ed. August Meier and Elliott M. Rudwick (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976), 309–494.

7 See, for example, R. Scott Baker, Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926–1972 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2006); and David S. Cecelski, Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina and the Fate of Black Schools in the South (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

8 Christopher Bonastia, Southern Stalemate. Edward Peeples, a sociologist and activist who published the first scholarly account of the closings, graciously shared his estimates of lockout victims following the January 8, 2007 interview with author.

9 Three black women in the Prospect District of the county ran what were essentially underground schools during the closings. See Amy Tillerson-Brown, “‘Grassroots Schools’ and Training Centers in the Prospect District of Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1959–1964,” in The Educational Lockout of African Americans in Prince Edward County (1959–1964): Personal Accounts and Reflections, ed. Terence Hicks and Abul Pitre (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2010).

10 Christopher Bonastia, Southern Stalemate. See also Christopher Bonastia, “White Justifications for School Closings in Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1959–1964,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 6, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 309–33.

11 Bonastia, Southern Stalemate; Titus, Brown's Battleground.

12 “Text of Supreme Court's Decision Ordering Virginia County to Reopen Its Schools,” New York Times, May 26, 1964, 26.

13 Michael W. Fuquay, “Civil Rights and the Private School Movement in Mississippi, 1964–1971,” History of Education Quarterly 42, no. 2 (June 2002), 159–80; and Kenneth T. Andrews, “Movement-Countermovement Dynamics and the Emergence of New Institutions: The Case of ‘White Flight’ Schools in Mississippi,” Social Forces 80, no. 3 (March 2002), 911–36.

14 Bonastia, Southern Stalemate.

15 John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 113. See also Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981). SNCC activists also had strong ties to the Highlander Center in Tennessee, which emphasized that oppressed people needed to analyze their problems collectively and experientially to devise responses to their oppression. See Daniel Perlstein, “Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools,” History of Education Quarterly 30, no. 3 (October 1990), 297–324.

16 Daniel Perlstein, “Teaching Freedom”; Jon Hale, “‘The Student As a Force for Social Change’: The Mississippi Freedom Schools and Student Engagement,” Journal of African American History 96, no. 3 (Summer 2011), 325–47; Clarence Taylor, Knocking at Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Leonard Buder, “Boycott Cripples City Schools,” New York Times, February 4, 1964, 1; “225,000 Pupils Out in Chicago Rally,” New York Times, October 23, 1963, 1.

17 Noel Day, “The Freedom Movement in Boston,” Equity & Excellence in Education 2, no. 6 (December 1964), 11–23.

18 Taylor, Knocking at Our Own Door, 135. These same issues would arise in the heated battle over community control in the late 1960s.

19 Robert Trumbull, “Freedom School Staffs Varied But Classes Followed Pattern,” New York Times, February 4, 1964, 21.

20 Draft memo, Mark Levy to Queens College Public Relations, May 15, 1989, box 1, folder 2, Mark Levy Collection, Department of Special Collections and Archives, Queens College, City University of New York (hereafter Levy Collection).

21 Michael Wenger, telephone interview with author. All author interviews were conducted in 2012 and 2013, unless otherwise noted. The QC chapter was originally affiliated with the NAACP, but later changed to a CORE chapter. With its national headquarters located in New York City, CORE had a particularly active presence there during the early 1960s, with the number of affiliated chapters increasing from three in early summer to fifteen by fall. CORE chapters demonstrated against businesses that employed few or no blacks, poor conditions in slum housing, and school segregation, among other issues. See August Meier and Elliott M. Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942–1968 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

22 Student Help Project, “A Summer in Prince Edward County,” n.d., box 1, folder 10, Michael Wenger Collection, Department of Special Collections and Archives, Queens College, City University of New York (hereafter Wenger Collection). The South Jamaica project grew quickly, eventually involving roughly 500 QC volunteer teachers and 1,200 students.

23 Northern Student Movement Records, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library,

24 “College Students to Teach Virginia Segregation Victims,” Queens College Phoenix, February 19, 1963, 3; Phoenix, “To Old Virginny” (editorial), February 19, 1963, 8.

25 Stan Shaw, telephone interview with author. McCarty and Friedman subsequently withdrew from the Virginia Project for reasons that are unclear.

26 Leonard Hausman, telephone interview with author.

27 Brian E. Lee and Brian J. Daugherity, “Program of Action: The Rev. L. Francis Griffin and the Struggle for Racial Equality in Farmville, 1963,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 121, no. 3 (July 2013), 250–87.

28 Rachel Weddington to Reverend L. Francis Griffin, June 19, 1963, box 1, folder 19, Wenger Collection.

29 Carolyn Hubbard Kamunanwire, telephone interview with author; Henry McLaughlin, “Teachers Call First Farmville Day Fine,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 17, 1963, 6; Ponsie Hillman, “Prince Edward County Freedom Schools Teachers Discuss Segregation Fight in 1963,” You Tube video, 44: 12, group video interview with Ponsie Hillman, Ruth Feldblet, Norma Becker and Janice Goldsmith-Bastuni, 2004, posted by the Albert Shanker Institute, (hereafter UFT 2004 interview). Becker died in 2006 and Hillman died in 2008.

30 “Meet the Players,” Freedom Riders (Boston, WGBH, 2010),

31 Jonna Perrillo, Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 3.

32 The Guild was formed in 1935 as “an anti-Communist breakaway organization” from the Teachers Union. In 1940, the AFT expelled the Teachers Union for its Communist affiliations. The Guild received the AFT's charter the following year. See Richard D. Kahlenberg, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

33 Jonna Perrillo, Uncivil Rights; United Federation of Teachers, 50 Years,

34 Ibid.

35 Shaw, interview.

36 Robert L. Green et al., The Educational Status of Children in a District without Public Schools (East Lansing: Bureau of Educational Research, College of Education, Michigan State University, 1964), 1; “School Bid Rejected,” New York Times, June 25, 1961, 79; “Negro School Plan Starts in Virginia,” New York Times, July 4, 1961, 13; Claude Sitton, “Negro Pupils Get Help in Virginia,” New York Times, July 10, 1961, 21; “Prince Edward County Negroes Demand Reopening of Schools,” Southern School News, August 1963, 14; Ruth Turner, “Educational Report: SCM SCEP 1962,” Special Collection on AFSC Work in Prince Edward County, Virginia, box 1962, folder 38333, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Archives (hereafter AFSC Papers); Ross Weeks Jr., “N.Y. Group Begins Registering Students,” Richmond News Leader, July 15, 1963, 4; Bill Wall, “Emphasis on Basic Fundamentals in Summer Classes for Negro Students,” Farmville Herald, July 13, 1962, 1. During the three years, according to Green, 38 percent of eligible Prince Edward children surveyed attended for at least one summer, while only 6 percent attended all three summers.

37 William Bennett to “Marjorie,” July 4, 1963, box 1, folder 21, Wenger Collection.

38 David Rudenstine to “Marty,” April 22, 1963, box 1, folder 20, Wenger Collection; David Rudenstine, interview with author.

39 Wenger, interview.

40 Sidney Simon to Friends of Virginia Student Help Project, April 1, 1963, box 1, folder 10, Wenger Collection.

41 Michael R. Wenger and Stan F. Shaw, “Northerners in a Jim Crow World: Queens College Summer Experience,” in Hicks and Pitre, Educational Lockout.

42 Richard Parrish, “Facts about AFT Education Project, Prince Edward County,” Richard Parrish Additions 2, box 1, folder 20, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library (hereafter Parrish Additions 2).

43 “Why Harlem Teacher Is Joining Task Force to Aid Negroes in Virginia,” New York Post, July 11, 1963.

44 AFT Teacher's Roster, UFT Papers; Richard Parrish, “Prince Edward County Story,” August 1963, folder 15, Parrish Additions 2; “Facts about AFT Education Project,” Parrish Additions 2.

45 Ponsie Hillman, Norma Becker, and Janice Goldsmith-Bastuni, UFT 2004 interview; June Tauber and Deborah Yaffee, interview with author; Jean Stein (Konzal), “Undated Speech Given by Jean Stein upon Return from Prince Edward County,” box 1, Jean Konzal Collection, Department of Special Collections and Archives, Queens College, City University of New York (hereafter Konzal Collection).

46 Hausman, interview.

47 Stan Shaw, “Prince Edward County Chronicle,” July 20, 1963 (Shaw kindly shared a copy of his journal with the author); Wenger, interview; Phyllis Padow-Sederbaum interview with author; UFT 2004 interview. See also Wenger and Shaw, “Northerners in a Jim Crow World.”

48 Hausman, interview.

49 Parrish, “Facts about AFT Education Project”; Ray Abrams, “Youngsters Demonstrate,” Richmond Afro American, August 10, 1963.

50 Norma Becker and Ruth Feldblet, UFT 2004 interview.

51 Ina Gold (QC student) quoted in Henry McLaughlin, “Teachers Call First Farmville Day Fine,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 17, 1963, 6. UFT teachers in the 2004 interview also recalled playing this game with students.

52 “LI ‘Teachers’ Say They Learned Most,” Long Island Press, August 1963 (exact date unknown), filed in box 2, folder 1, Wenger Collection.

53 Ibid.

54 Perlstein, “Teaching Freedom.”

55 Sandra E. Adickes, The Legacy of a Freedom School (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 30.

56 Hubbard, interview.

57 Abrams, “Youngsters Demonstrate.”

58 “And They Were Here …” (editorial), Farmville Herald, August 30, 1963, 1C.

59 Ruth Turner to Jean Fairfax, August 2, 1963, box 1963, folder 38544, AFSC Papers.

60 Ibid.; Bonastia, Southern Stalemate. Turner had also been a member of the SCEP group that taught in the county in 1962.

61 Erwin Knoll, “A Quiet Summer Night in Farmville,” July 19, 1963, 1, filed in box 1, Konzal Collection. Although the publisher of the article is not entirely clear, it appears to be the Long Island Press.

62 Parrish, “Facts about AFT Education Project.”

63 Hillman, UFT 2004 interview. The teachers recalled singing “We Shall Overcome” and “We Are Soldiers,” among other songs.

64 Stan Shaw Journal, August 5, 1963, in author's possession. Mike Wenger recalls that the volunteers, at Griffin's invitation, did take part in one march to the local jail, where some local teenagers were being detained after taking part in demonstrations.

65 Shaw, interview.

66 Wenger, interview.

67 Padow-Sederbaum, interview.

68 For an impressively detailed account of the 1963 demonstrations, and Griffin's pivotal role in them, see Lee and Daugherity, “Program of Action.” Local ministers Goodwin Douglas and Samuel Williams coordinated the protests.

69 Bonastia, Southern Stalemate, and Titus, Brown's Battleground, devote considerable attention to the Free Schools.

70 Egerton, “A Gentleman's Fight,” 124.

71 Robert L. Green and Louis J. Hofmann, “A Case Study of the Effects of Educational Deprivation on Southern Rural Negro Children,” Journal of Negro Education 34, no. 3 (July 1965), 340.

72 William vanden Heuvel, e-mail correspondence with author, February 4, 2013.

73 Dittmer, Local People; Adickes, Legacy of a Freedom School; Carson, In Struggle. Other attendees at the initial Freedom Summer planning meeting included Charles Cobb (SNCC), Noel Day, Septima Clark (Citizenship Schools), Bayard Rustin (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Myles Horton (Highlander Center), and Bob Moses.

74 Lois Chaffee to Norma Becker, March 2, 1964, Becker—Mississippi Freedom Summer Project—General papers, 1964–1965 (Norma Becker Papers, 1961–1975; Historical Society Library Microforms Room, micro 817, reel 1), In the letter, Chaffee expresses interest in contacting Rupert Picott (misspelled “Peaco”) of the VTA and Rachel Weddington (misspelled “Reading”).

75 “Court Va. Ruling Spurs Mississippi Freedom Schools,” United Teacher, June 4, 1964, 1; “Want Teachers & Supplies; Avoid Educational Disaster of Prince Edward County,” United Teacher, October 27, 1964, 5. Copies of the articles were kindly provided to me by Leo Casey, executive director of the AFT's Albert Shanker Institute.

76 Perrillo, Uncivil Rights. Evidently two other New York teachers, Bruce Glushakow and Sylvia Woog, also volunteered in both Prince Edward and Mississippi. Both were stationed in Columbus, Mississippi—Glushakow worked in voter registration, and Woog in the Freedom Schools. See “Master List, 1964 Freedom School Volunteers” and untitled list of union teachers in Prince Edward County. Both were kindly provided to me by Leo Casey.

77 Mark Levy, “COFO (SNCC/CORE), 1964, 1965, Mississippi,”

78 Tauber, interview; Yaffee, interview.

79 Larry Simonberg, “Fair's NYC Pavilion Is Target for Collegians’ Demonstration,” Phoenix, April 28, 1964, 1; Charles Delafuente, “Freedom Week Rallies Fight for Civil Rights,” Phoenix, April 28, 1964, 1; Stuart Zipper, “CORE, NAACP Demand Integrated Schools Now,” Phoenix, May 20, 1964, 5.

80 Goldsmith, UFT 2004 interview.

81 In Freedom Summer, McAdam notes that Mississippi Project recruitment focused on students at elite colleges and universities who could self-fund their volunteer work. Since blacks made up fewer than 3 percent of all undergraduates at the time, the proportion of black volunteers in Mississippi was consequently low. Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

82 Kristen Green, Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle (New York: Harper, 2015). For my critique of Green's approach, see “When a Memoir Tells Half the Story: Prince Edward County and School Desegregation,” JSTOR Daily, November 11, 2015,

83 McAdam, Freedom Summer.