George W. Watkins and New Kent Schools

Historical Significance

Despite the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision that declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, Virginia school boards adopted a policy of "massive resistance," avoiding integration by whatever legal means possible. State policies prevented school desegregation until 1959 and then minimized the impact of the Brown decision well into the 1960s. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enabled the Federal Government to put pressure on state school boards to desegregate. The Attorney General had authority to file school desegregation cases, and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) could withhold federal funding from school districts that continued to segregate.

Aware of this new legislation, a member of the New Kent County NAACP named Calvin Green, along with state NAACP attorneys, brought a lawsuit to the U.S. District Court in 1965 contending that New Kent County maintained a racially segregated school system. Soon after, the New Kent County School Board hastily developed a "freedom of choice" plan under which students could choose whether to attend all-white New Kent School or all-black George W. Watkins School. Through this plan the school board was able to satisfy HEW and the lower federal court requirements. Yet in reality the plan did little to further integration in the county. While 115 black students chose to attend New Kent, no white students opted to attend Watkins, and eighty-five percent of black students remained at Watkins. Though the county was integrated residentially, its schools remained highly segregated. This was similar to many counties in Virginia, and throughout the South, at this time.

After its loss in the U.S. District Court and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the NAACP took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the "freedom of choice" plan placed the burden of desegregation on black citizens rather than on the school boards, where it belonged. The NAACP also highlighted the fact that New Kent County had successfully resisted desegregation completely until 1965. In May 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Green and the NAACP, declaring that the pattern of separate "white" and "Negro" schools in the New Kent County school system was found unconstitutional in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The ruling stated further that school boards were "clearly charged with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch." School boards were thus forced to actively require integration rather than passively prohibit segregation.

Following the Supreme Court decision, the New Kent School Board converted the George W. Watkins School into New Kent Elementary School and shifted all the county's high school students to New Kent High School. Both schools were opened to all students regardless of race.

Both sites were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, and both remain in use as educational facilities. 

Physical Description

George W. Watkins Elementary is located at 6501 New Kent Highway in Quinton, VA. New Kent Middle School is located at 11825 New Kent Highway in New Kent, VA. The schools are about seven miles apart. Both are brick facilities that range from one to two stories and sit on large lots within a wooded setting. The schools contain two major buildings each and each has a large schoolyard to the rear.

Geographical and Contact Information

George W. Watkins Elementary
6501 New Kent Highway
Quinton, VA.
23141
Phone: 804-966-9660
Fax: 804-932-8459

New Kent Middle School
11825 New Kent Highway
New Kent, VA
23124
Phone: 804-966-9655
Fax: 804-966-2703

Images

New Kent School

New Kent School

Source: Courtesy Virginia Dept. Historic Resources View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “George W. Watkins and New Kent Schools,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed December 14, 2017, http://aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/170.

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