Prior to the Civil War, laws prohibited African Americans from being taught to read or write. The few who did gain an education—usually by way of sympathetic whites or religious groups—did so in private and in secret.
It was during this period that black colleges and universities such as Howard University and Morris Brown College were founded. But at the elementary and secondary school levels, resources—supplies, construction materials, teachers—were often in short supply.
The challenge of educating those who had been systematically denied schooling was further complicated by Plessy, in which the high court ruled that black Americans could be provided “separate” public accommodations from those of whites, as long as they were “equal.”
In public education, though, separate was never equal.
Conditions at schools for black children were often remarkably poor. Whites traveling south along Route 15 past Moton often stopped to gawk, mistaking the tar paper shacks for chicken coops.
“They had never seen anything like that before,” says Stokes.
Eventually, with efforts to get a new school building going nowhere, Moton students, led by Stokes and a 16-year-old student named Barbara Johns, staged a two-week walkout on April 23, 1951.