HISTORICAL BACKGROUND 4

(4) Griffin headed the local branch of the NAACP, becoming the county coordinator, and thus establishing links with other Black activists on the state and national levels. His immediate focus, however, was on the local level, where the Moton P.T.A. offered to assist the county school board in its ongoing search for a site for a new Black high school. Although there was plenty of available land in Prince Edward County, none had deemed suitable. The school board accepted the P.T.A.’s offer to locate a site for the new school, and Willie Redd promptly informed them when a new site was identified. Despite a fair offer, the board delayed action. Then, on April 23, 1951, the students initiated a strike to protest the overcrowded conditions, the shacks and the seemingly futile efforts to build a new high school. Using the ruse of a false report of truant students at the local bus station to get Principal M. Boyd Jones out of the building, several students forged written announcements of a school assembly, calling all classes to the auditorium. Teachers were then escorted from the auditorium. Instead of the principal, student Barbara Johns, niece of Reverend Vernon Johns, native of Prince Edward County and the renowned minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, appeared on the stage and announced the strike. She asked the students to join with the organizing committee, a group of ten Moton students, in a strike to demand better facilities. The student body as a whole agreed to join them in the effort. Principal Jones returned from his wild goose chase at about the same time and pleaded with the students not to go through with it, but they refused and politely asked him to leave.

Despite being deceived, Jones was accused by the school superintendent of participation in the conspiracy. Also implicated were Reverend Vernon Johns and Reverend Griffin. Griffin, the first person the students contacted once they gained control of the school, was asked to settle a dispute over whether or not to immediately send a delegation to the county school superintendent to present demands. His suggestion that a vote be taken resulted in a call to the superintendent.

After consulting with Griffin, the students wrote a letter to the Richmond office of the NAACP requesting the assistance of the organization’s special counsel. The office put them in touch with attorney Oliver Hill, whose firm was already handling a case involving Black Schools in Christiansburg, Virginia. Hill advised the students to return to class, promising to visit Prince Edward County immediately to talk with them. Although discouraged, the students sent a delegation to the superintendent, who initially refused to meet it. Superintendent McIlwaine directly accused the students of being misled by an adult agitator, perhaps Griffin or Boyd, and threatened expulsion if they did not end the strike.

The next day, two hundred people, including students, Hill, and fellow attorney Spottswood Robinson, gathered at Griffin’s church, where an attempt was made by the attorneys to get the students to end their strike. The students refused, convincing Hill and Robinson through organization and determination, to abandon this tactic. While many adults were divided on whether or not to support the students, Hill and Robinson suggested they go beyond pushing for better schools and demand desegregation. Students were called upon to consider the issue and discuss it with those not present.