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  • Christopher Bonastia (a1)

From 1959 to 1964, Prince Edward County, Virginia, dodged a court desegregation order by refusing to operate public schools. Though the county played an integral role in the national battle over civil rights, scholars and journalists have largely neglected Prince Edward's role in the national drama of race. In 1951, Black high school students went on strike to protest unequal school facilities. This strike led to an NAACP lawsuit that became one of five decided in Brown v. Board of Education. When faced with a final desegregation deadline in 1959, the county put itself in a unique position by becoming the only school district in the U.S. to close its public schools for an extended period of time rather than accept any desegregation. Most White students attended a private, segregated academy; over three-quarters of Black Prince Edward students lost some or all of those years of education. White county leaders believed they were creating a blueprint for defying desegregation in the rural South and perhaps, they hoped, throughout much of the United States. Using archival materials, interviews and secondary accounts, I explain how White county leaders made a public case for the school closings. These leaders' rhetorical strategy was a crucial early draft in the depiction of segregation as a natural state free of racial rancor. The segregationist rhetoric emanating from Prince Edward County was grounded primarily in arguments for privatization, local self-determination, and taxpayers' rights. Such arguments would come to dominate conservative rhetoric nationwide.

Corresponding author
Professor Christopher Bonastia, Department of Sociology, Lehman College, 250 Bedford Park Boulevard West, Bronx, NY 10468. E-mail:
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Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
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