Public education in general was slow in becoming a solid reality in the South. Until 1870, no statewide, organized system of public education existed in Virginia, although a few localities operated their own systems. Before the Civil War, Virginia had private academies for those White parents who could pay for schooling and a few schools for “paupers.” Before the Civil War, by law, neither slave nor free Black children could attend school or even be privately taught to read and write. There were Sunday school teachers and others who broke this law, and some African Americans taught themselves. Still, the Black population was largely illiterate when the Freedmen’s Bureau opened the first free schools for Blacks in Virginia near Hampton Roads in 1862. Schools opened by northern teachers under missionary auspices right after the Civil War were too closely associated with the northern interests for most Whites to send their children to them. The Virginia Constitution of 1870, under Virginia’s Reconstruction government, mandated a public school system, and the following year William Henry Ruffner was appointed by the General Assembly as first superintendent of public instruction.
Ruffner’s first duty was to draft legislation establishing the system. The bill he submitted was based on precedents set in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and called for the creation of a state department of public instruction, with the state having a share in the funding. Opposition to the plan was widespread and focused on the loss of traditional local authority represented by the new state agency and the state funding provision. There was also much concern expressed about the incorporation of education for Blacks, which had been illegal before the Civil War, although there was little debate about segregation. It was understood that schools would be separate, as all other aspects of public life had become racially segregated, in a de facto rather than statutory manner, after the Civil War. There was also concern that parents would be deprived of complete influence in their children’s upbringing.
Funding was a problem from the start, with monies initially earmarked for public education on the state level being diverted to cover Virginia’s large Civil War debt. Enrollment and tax support were both viewed as referenda on the popularity of the public schools and continued to be a problem for years. Prince Edward County’s first school superintendent, Benjamin Mosby Smith, once complained that even with his other income as a religious educator, it was hard to make ends meet. By the time of Ruffner’s retirement in 1882, however, the public schools were firmly established and growing.
Although Ruffner had expressed certainty that qualified Blacks would be chosen to serve on the local school boards, none were. White males, primarily property owners, made up the membership. Black teachers were paid less, for it was asserted that they were less qualified, and school facilities for Blacks tended to be less than adequate. One Black teacher in Prince Edward County remarked on the large, drafty holes in the school floors. The lack of adequate heat was also a problem. In 1896, the segregation of schools practiced in Prince Edward County and in the rest of Virginia and the south was given an implied legal sanction by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that separation of facilities based on race was in fact legal, as long as these facilities were “equal.” Before 1939, the secondary school education available to Blacks in Prince Edward County consisted of a few extra grades in one elementary school. What was loosely referred to, as “vocational training” was all that many Whites believed Blacks needed to acquire. This and “on-the job training” favored in rural areas like Prince Edward County, were considered sufficient, and even better suited for preparing Blacks than a high school education.