Virginia Scholarships Finally Break Color Barrier

The state of Virginia is matching a philanthropist's scholarship to people denied entry to public schools in the 1950s, when the state closed some schools rather than desegregate them. Scholarship recipients, now in their 50s and 60s, are using the money to go to college.

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When the US Supreme Court ruled public school segregation illegal half a century ago, the Commonwealth of Virginia closed some schools rather than comply. The children shut out of an education then are, of course, adults now, and they're eligible for an unusual form of compensation. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams reports.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

In rural Prince Edward County, local authorities closed their public schools for five years as part of a nationwide movement called Massive Resistance. Black students and some white students were left without access to public education. To right that wrong, the Virginia state Legislature announced the first $2.2 million in scholarships to those who lost educational opportunities. The grants will allow some of those people, now in their 50s and 60s, to finish high school or go to college. Governor Mark Warner.

Governor MARK WARNER (Virginia): The roots go beyond Brown vs. Board of Education. It really goes back to Virginia's attempt to redress one of the darkest times in our history which was Massive Resistance. This was not something that was taking place in the '30s or '40s. This was something that took place into the '60s.

WILLIAMS: Rita Moseley is one of the scholarship recipients. She was attending middle school in Farmville, Virginia, when the schools were closed. Her parents sent her out of town to continue her education.

Ms. RITA MOSELEY (Scholarship Recipient): And I had to leave home. I had to leave my brother behind and my family and go to a place I had never been, and the people that I lived with were strangers. My mother had never met them and I had never met them before that day that I was driven there.

WILLIAMS: Moseley is now a secretary for the Prince Edward County Public Schools. She plans to use the money to take college classes in business management. The state program is designed solely to pay tuitions. So the money will go to schools, not to individuals. About half of the money was donated by philanthropist John Kluge, who wanted to press the state Legislature to act. Virginia State Senator Ben Lambert chairs the committee in charge of the scholarships.

State Senator BEN LAMBERT (Virginia): I am 68 years old myself and I was in high school in 1954 and when that decision was made and I could have been one of those individuals. We want to at least award them the opportunity to receive something that they were supposed to have received where their parents paid taxes and they just didn't get an education. And they deserve it if they want to get it.

WILLIAMS: The tuition money is for people who were directly affected by the school closings. It can't be passed on to their children or grandchildren. The program is designed that way to make certain that it's not seen as a step toward reparations for descendants of black slaves in Virginia. Governor Warner.

Gov. WARNER: I think it's a very different issue. This is an issue that happened 40 years ago in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We've identified the individuals who can apply for these scholarships. It's being matched by the private sector. This was the right thing to do.

WILLIAMS: The man who came up with the idea for the scholarship program is Ken Woodley, the editor of the Farmville Herald. Ironically, the Herald was a loud voice for segregation in the 1950s. Today, Woodley says the paper is seeking to redeem itself.

Mr. KEN WOODLEY (Editor, Farmville Herald): In this crusade, I had the full support of the publisher and it's the same family who owned it during Massive Resistance, and the newspaper then was a loud voice for Massive Resistance, and I've always felt that we needed to be a very, very loud voice for what needed to be done today.

WILLIAMS: Rita Moseley, now 58, is pleased with the scholarship.

Ms. MOSELEY: But as far as making amends for the past, that's not it for me because nothing can ever make up for that. That was a loss of education. It was a loss of our lives. It will never make up for the five years that schools were closed.

WILLIAMS: In addition to the 66 recipients for the first round of scholarships, the state hopes to continue the program for the next four years. Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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