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Freedom Now Project Locates Survivors of Prince Edward School Shutdown

Sandra Stokes walks down Farmville's Main Street
Sandra "Sandy" Stokes walks down Farmville's Main St. with other youth in July 1963 (Presented by VCU Libraries)

In April, VCU launched an initiative to identify subjects of a rare collection of police photos documenting Farmville’s civil rights protests in the summer of 1963. Using crowdsourcing and old fashioned detective work, researchers with the Freedom Now Project have identified dozens of people. Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp met with siblings captured in the photos and brings you their story.

Learn More: View more photos of participants in the 1963 Farmville protests at VCU’s Freedom Now Project. If you recognize yourself or former schoolmates or have other information to contribute, please contact Alice W. Campbell, at [email protected] or by calling (804) 828.7934.


The Freedom Now Project published more than 250 photos that were commissioned by the Farmville police in the summer of 1963. The images show youth marching down Main Street holding signs that read: “Eye it, don’t buy it,” “I’d rather line up for school,” and “Must we learn our civics in jail?”

Alice Campbell: Very few people know this story and a story is often best told with pictures and in the lives of the people who made it happen.

VCU Digital Initiatives Archivist Alice Campbell has studied every inch of these photos, blowing them up to make out the writing on a button.

Campbell: Low and behold they’re wearing buttons for the March on Washington which would take place in about two to three weeks from when photos were taken.

Protesters outside Grants

And peering beyond the reflections of store windows, finding a small boy looking out at the protesters and the photographer.

Campbell: And if you look closely see a woman who is probably his mother who is checking out, with a sibling, and this small child appears at the door staring out in a number of pictures, just trying to see what’s going on.

While the images alone tell a powerful part of the story, the narrative becomes more complete as subjects are identified and located.

Campbell: When I first got the photos, I did not know the name of a single person in any of them.

By publishing the photos online and calling on the public to help crowdsource information, the Freedom Now Project has identified 60 subjects in the photos, including members of the Stokes family.

Rudy, Sandy and James Stokes gather around a kitchen table looking at the Freedom Now Project photos.

Sandy Stokes: That’s me? That’s the first time I’m seeing this one...

In one picture, Sandy Stokes, then 15, walks down the sidewalk, carrying a sign:

Sandy Stokes: The Closing of Public Schools in Prince Edward County Has Disgraced the State of Virginia.

Rudy Stokes, 3rd from left In another, 16-year-old Rudy Stokes stands with a group outside College Shoppe restaurant, which refused service to people of color. James was too young to protest, and he says he worried about his siblings after seeing TV coverage of demonstrators in other cities who were violently attacked. There was no physical violence in Farmville, but there were threats and arrests.

Rudy Stokes: WFLO broadcast advertisements on Sunday morning, “Worship at the Church of Your Choice,” so we said okay, we’ll do that.

Rudy says word about the “kneel-in” protest leaked and when they arrived at one of the churches, the doors were locked. Despite the group’s peaceful protest on the steps of Farmville Baptist Church, police arrested more than 20 people, including Rudy and Sandy.

Sandy Stokes: I was the first one they took away and they took us to the courthouse. I remember, a gentleman came to the door and said "Why are you coming here to our church? Why don’t you go to your own church? Don’t come here with a chip on your shoulder." And we started singing what? We should drink wine together on our knees. And then one of the police officers asked me my name, and we were taught not to say anything so they give you a Jane Doe or John Doe warrant. And they picked up me and they took me to the courthouse, because they realized I was underage. And Reverend Williams was the next one and finally, I was so happy when you (Rudy) came in.

Rudy Stokes: If you were 18, they lock you up, but we were underage.


Kneel-in protest
Kneel-in protest (Photo RTD/Moton Museum)

 The photographs spark memories from that summer of non-violent protests for equal rights, dignity and respect organized by Reverend L. Francis Griffin and other religious leaders. What the images don’t document are the many difficult years, before and after, that resulted from Prince Edward County’s shutdown of public schools.

Rudy Stokes: Sort of like the lost generation because, just like our family, we were split up and it destroyed families.

The Stokes already had a difficult childhood. Their mother died about eight years earlier and Sandy had been living with her grandmother.

Rudy Stokes: I was eight when my mother died. (Sandy) was seven, (James) was six and (our youngest brother) was five.

Their lives were about to become even more challenging. In 1959, Prince Edward officials chained up the public schools rather than comply with court-ordered integration. That decision would result in deep and lasting harm to the intellectual, psychological and emotional development of hundreds of Virginians. While an estimated 1700 black students would be barred from a free, public education for four years, another 1400 white students continued their schooling at private, segregated institutions.


Student protesters outside State Theater
Student protesters outside State Theater

 Rudy Stokes: We didn’t realize that the schools would be closed that long, we thought maybe it would be a couple months, we'd have an extra long summer. That was the thought of the people, until after one year, two years, then hey, this is real.

For the first two years, the Stokes walked miles to an ad-hoc learning facility.

Sandy Stokes: Where retired teachers or older people would teach us what they knew. You know, some kids had never gone to school and even if I knew my ABCs, I could teach a smaller kid. And we walked there every day. Rudy, James: That was about a two mile walk, one-way, so four, five miles. Sandy: We walked, and stayed there at the center so we could keep our brains going a little bit.

When it was clear that state and federal court challenges against the school shutdown would not be resolved quickly, some Prince Edward youth went to live with relatives, others were matched with host families in other counties and states. It wasn’t easy for the Stokes, whose family splintered even more.

Rudy Stokes: The first year I stayed with a black family right on the Connecticut River and every morning before school I broke out into hives, my arms, face, and this continued the whole school year because I was out of my element. All of a sudden, I’m a black boy, in a white world.

Rudy said he did well in sports and advanced a grade that year, but he was still living in poverty.

Rudy Stokes: Everyday I went to school, I’m a growing boy, I’d bust out of my pants, so I’d come back home and sew them back together. Next day I go to school and bust out of my pants.

He got a part-time job cleaning a hotel to get money for clothing, and the next year was much better. Rudy was placed with a lawyer and social worker in Springfield who also owned a bakery.

Rudy Stokes: No more breaking out in the morning, it was great compared to the first year.

Sandy first went to live with her Aunt in DC, then she went to Suffolk where she lived in a well-appointed, modern home with a retired doctor and librarian.

Lunch counter protest at J.J. Newberry's
Lunch counter protest at J.J. Newberry's 

 Sandy Stokes: And they had grandchildren so they would bring them down on weekends to be with me to make me comfortable, but you’re missing your brothers and your family, you’re already shy and it was a lot, it was a lot to go through.

Sandy’s eldest brother Lester was sent to Boston, and their youngest brother Alton went to Ashland. After missing four years of school, James went to live with a longshoreman in Mathews County on the Chesapeake Bay.

James Stokes: That’s the first time in my life I ever ate oysters, I didn’t know how to eat them; we had stewed oysters, fried oysters, didn’t know how to eat shrimp.

Adjusting to this unfamiliar place far from family was difficult for him too.

James Stokes: There was a neighbor across street, he was military, he had a white son and daughter and I used to go over there and play with them. Once the father came in and I actually went and hid under the table because being from Prince Edward County, we weren’t allowed to play with white kids. We had to respect them just like adults. My grandmother used to teach us that we had to say "Yes sir, yes ma'am," and here I am at another location playing with the kids. So I guess it sort of frightened me and I didn’t know what the father was going to think of it.


Registration at Free School No. 2
Registration at Free School No. 2

 While the Stokes were reuniting in the summer of 1963, the Kennedy Administration had been working to get Prince Edward children back in schools while the case against the County Board of Supervisors made its way to the US Supreme Court.  Frantically organized in just a few months, with private donations and many volunteer hands, the Free School Association leased the shuttered public schools and opened them up in September. Teaching staff was integrated and several white families had registered their children, but the educators faced a monumental task.

This was the first time many Prince Edward children walked into a classroom. There was fear, anxiety. Many couldn’t read or hold a pencil and some couldn’t communicate with words. Even those who had been in school before the shutdown had lost much of what they had learned. Teachers prioritized the youth that had been left the farthest behind.

Rudy Stokes: And people like Sandy and myself who had two years of school, we were just there because you can’t concentrate on everybody, you can’t have a tutor for every person so the majority of the work has go toward the kids that missed so much school compared to a person like me who had two years of school. So we sort of maintained, he can survive compared to someone who hasn’t been to school for five years.


The Stokes graduation photos
The Stokes graduation photos

 In the Spring of 1964, the US Supreme Court decided that Prince Edward County was violating the Equal Protection Clause and ordered officials to re-open the public schools. Although many youth never returned to the classroom, Rudy, Sandy and James all graduated from Moton High School in Farmville. Rudy joined the military, served overseas in Vietnam and later retired from Alcoa, formerly Reynolds Metals, after 37 years. Sandy got a job at Howard University, working there for 42 years and retiring as the Coordinator of the Graduate Admissions Office. James also joined the military, worked as State Capitol police, then as an electrical technician at RCA and Tyson before retiring two years ago.

James Stokes: If I had to mentor young people today, I’d teach them not to use backgrounds and certain situations as a cop-out. Just because you’re low-income or this and that, you can get an education. I guess we have to open a lot of doors for that; it’s a struggle, but if put your mind to it, you can do it.


James, Sandy & Rudy Stokes
James, Sandy & Rudy Stokes

Sandy Stokes: I think you should appreciate school, don’t take it for granted, just think about what happened to us. That's why I think we need to get it out there to some of the kids. I always let my nieces nephews know what we went through, because as James said, you receive a diploma but you had to teach yourself, it was a self-taught thing. I left here and right out of high school started to work at Howard University. I was the youngest person they hired at Howard University. But I had to listen, I had to go home and be aware of things I never heard of, start taking courses at Howard and I was like, I never heard of this. And you're already behind - so it was a self-taught thing, you had to teach yourself, I'm still teaching myself. I learn from the young peole, learn from the old folks, my little nieces and nephews. You just dont stop learning.

The Stokes hope that by sharing their story there will be more awareness about the Prince Edward school shutdown and its impact on an entire generation of Prince Edward residents.

Sandy Stokes: We're survivors, we're survivors.

VCU is continuing to gather information on the photos in the Freedom Now Project, with a goal to identify more participants and expand the scholarship on this important period of civil rights history. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.