“Separate but Equal” in Photographs

In April 1951, students at Moton High School in Prince Edward County, VA, led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns, went on strike to persuade their local school board to build them a better school. This eventually led to the landmark civil rights case Dorothy E. Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, et al. – which was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, along with three other school segregation cases, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Moton High School English 9 Class
Moton High School English 9 Class, available at www.docsteach.org/documents/document/moton-english-class

Schools in Virginia were segregated in 1951, and Moton was typical of the all-black schools in the county. It was built in 1939 to hold half as many students as it did by the early 1950s. Its teachers were paid substantially less than teachers at the nearby white schools. It had no gymnasium, cafeteria, or auditorium with fixed seats like Farmville or Worsham high schools, which were for white students.

The students asked for help from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who filed suit on behalf of the students and their parents against the school district. The first plaintiff listed was Dorothy E. Davis, a 14-year old ninth grader. They asked that the state law requiring segregated schools in Virginia be struck down.

Both the plaintiffs (the students) and the defendants (the Prince Edward County school district) entered several photographs as exhibits in the case. The plaintiffs wanted to demonstrate unequal facilities. The defendants were trying to show that they were providing equal facilities in both black and white schools.

The over 100 photographs were recently digitized and made available in the National Archives Catalog by the staff at the National Archives at Philadelphia. Over 30 of them, showing Moton, Farmville, and Worsham high schools, are now available on DocsTeach.

You can look at the photos submitted by the plaintiffs and ask your students to determine whether the facilities seem “equal,” and why the attorneys for the plaintiffs might have chosen these images in particular.

Exterior views of Moton and Farmville high schools
Moton High School (on the left, for black students) and Farmville High School (for white students),  available at www.docsteach.org/documents/document/moton-exterior & www.docsteach.org/documents/document/farmville-exterior
Auditoriums of Moton and Farmville
Auditoriums in Moton (on left) and Farmville, available at www.docsteach.org/documents/document/moton-auditorium-front & www.docsteach.org/documents/document/farmville-auditorium
Home Economics Living Rooms at Moton and Worsham High Schools
Home economics classrooms at Moton High School (on the left, for black students) and Worsham High School (for white students), available at www.docsteach.org/documents/document/moton-home-economics-sewing & www.docsteach.org/documents/document/worsham-home-economics-living


You can then compare the photos submitted by the defendants (the school district) and ask students if these images make the facilities seem equal, and why the attorneys for the defendants would have chosen these.

Auditoriums in Moton and Worsham High Schools
Auditoriums in Moton (on left, for black students) and Worsham (for white students), available at www.docsteach.org/documents/document/moton-auditorium-stage & www.docsteach.org/documents/document/worsham-auditorium
Classrooms in Moton and Worsham high schools
Classrooms in Moton (on the left) and Worsham high schools, available at www.docsteach.org/documents/document/moton-high-classroom & www.docsteach.org/documents/document/worsham-high-classroom


In the spring of 1952, the U.S. District Court decided in favor of the school board and upheld segregation. On appeal, the case made it to the Supreme Court and was decided along with cases from South Carolina, Delaware, and Kansas, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Brown decision marked the end of the “separate but equal” precedent set nearly 60 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson, stating that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and that school segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, and Prince Edward County in particular, resisted the Supreme Court’s decision. The county closed its public schools from 1959 to 1964 to avoid desegregation.

You can find all 30-plus images of the schools on DocsTeach, and can use the tools available there to create your own online learning activities based on the photographs. You may also wish to use our photograph analysis worksheet to help students analyze the photos.


Sections of this post were adapted from the article: Potter, Lee Ann. “Frontiers in Civil Rights: Dorothy E. Davis, et al. versus County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia.” National History Day Teachers’ Guide: Frontiers in History: People Places, Ideas (2001); 71-75.

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