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Civil Rights: The Queens College Student Help Project

SHP Project Initiatives

Jamaica Student Help Project

The Student Help Project consisted of initiatives in both Prince Edward County, Virginia and South Jamaica, Queens. The Jamaica Student Help Project was the larger of the two, taking place closer to campus, and established first, in 1962. The Student Help Project was initiated by members of the Queens College chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and some of the college’s education majors and professors, including Dr. Sidney Simon and Dr. Rachel Weddington. Stan Shaw, a student at the college, was a founder of the Jamaica program that provided free after school tutoring services to children in South Jamaica, Queens. At its height, the Jamaica Student Help Project engaged 500 Queens College student volunteers who offered tutoring services to more than one thousand educationally under-resourced students in Queens. 


Virginia Student Help ProjectQC students Lenny Hausman, Stan Shaw, Rosalind (Silverman) Andrews, and Carolyn Hubbard-Kamunanwire pose for a promotional picture before the Virginia project.

In 1951, Barbara Johns, a student at the segregated R.R. Moton High School in Farmville (Prince Edward County) Virginia, led her classmates in a strike to demand better school conditions. The students wanted a new school.

Resources in segregated public schools in Black communities, such as at Moton High School, were decidedly inferior to those found in schools for white students. Moton, built in 1939, was overcrowded from the start. Tar-paper shacks lacking adequate heat in the winter accommodated the overflow. Overall, the school lacked up-to-date equipment, learning spaces, and books, and was under-funded and in a state of disrepair.

Although desegregation was not their initial goal, Johns and the other students agreed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filing a suit on their behalf to overturn the legal basis of maintaining segregated schools. This suit became one of five cases to make up the historic Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. Although Brown v. Board of Education declared de jure racially segregated public schools unconstitutional, many school districts resisted desegregating their public schools. Harry F. Byrd, a U.S. Senator from Virginia, called for a strategy of “massive resistance” to desegregation.

In 1959, Prince Edward County schools were ordered by a judge to desegregate, however, the county school board responded by closing the entire public school system rather than comply. Private, segregated schools were opened for white students only. Religious and community institutions, relatives, and nearby counties provided limited educational opportunities for Black children and in many instances, Black children were sent to live with relatives in other counties or even states in order to receive an education.  

Front of the public school in Prince Edward County, 1963.The summer of 1963 brought major changes to Prince Edward County. The local NAACP Youth Council, under the tutelage of Reverend Goodwin Douglas, pastor of the AME Beulah Church in Farmville, not only protested the school lock-out, but also demanded desegregation of movie theaters, stores, and churches. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sent field organizers to Prince Edward County to conduct trainings in direct action and non-violent methods.

The Virginia Student Help Project had its beginning the summer before, when Queens College student Hanoch McCarty (then known as Fred) saw a story about the school lock-out in Prince Edward County on an NBC news program. Queens College students who were members of the Jamaica (Queens) Student Help Project and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter on campus, along with Education Department Professors Rachel Weddington and Sidney Simon, organized an initiative to travel to Virginia during the summer of 1963. As a result, a cohort of sixteen Queens College students, along with Faculty advisor Rachel Weddington, spent six weeks living with Black families and tutoring children in Prince Edward County who had been denied a public education since 1959. At the request of community leaders such as Reverend L. Francis Griffin of Farmville’s First Baptist Church, the Queens College Student Help Project volunteers focused on teaching and generally did not directly participate in local demonstrations. 

During the summer of 1963, Special Assistant to the Attorney General, William vanden Heuvel, was also present in Prince Edward County on a fact finding mission. Under the leadership of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, vanden Heuvel and the U.S. Department of Justice played a pivotal role in establishing the Prince Edward Free School Association, which provided children with free education during the 1963-1964 school year. Schools were ordered to desegregate by the Supreme Court in 1964 (Griffin vs. County Board of Prince Edward County).

SHP Faculty Members, Advisors, and Historical Figures

Dr. Sidney Simon

Born in Pittsburg, PA, in 1929, Dr. Sidney Simon was a professor in the Queens College Education Department in the 1960s. He also served as the faculty advisor for several civil rights initiatives that were organized by QC students. In addition to mentoring and preparing students to tutor in Prince Edward County during the summer of 1963, Dr. Simon also coordinated two trips to Mississippi in 1965 with students to help rebuild churches that were burned down during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. While advising QC students who were preparing to tutor children in Prince Edward County, Dr. Simon led a number of training sessions out of his home in Long Beach, NY, where the students learned to deal with both educational and social situations they might encounter in the South. Unfortunately, Dr. Simon was not able to join the QC students in Farmville in 1963, but nevertheless the students kept Dr. Simon’s well-known motto in mind, that their "deeds should always match their creeds," while helping prepare the children to go back to school the next year.

Rachel Weddington

Dr. Rachel Weddington was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on March 9th, 1917. She graduated Atlantic City High School with honors and attended Howard University in Washington D.C., completing both undergraduate and graduate degrees there. She received her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1958. She was a research associate at the Merrill-Palmer Institute in Detriot for four years, and taught at Howard University in Washington, DC for nine years before coming to Queens College in New York as an assistant professor in 1961.

Weddington’s presence at Queens College provided critical support for both the Jamaica Student Help Project and the Virginia Student Help Project. Alumnus Stan Shaw reflects that, “As young leaders, we had the vision and energy to change the world but not the wisdom and maturity to make things happen. Dr. Weddington had an abundance of those latter traits.” Surprisingly, Dr. Weddington decided to travel to Prince Edward County with the students (with a great deal of encouragement from administrator Helen Hendricks). Her calming presence and relationship with the Black community were keys to the effectiveness of the project. Over the course of the summer, she was lovingly referred to as “Doc” as the Queens College students increasingly learned to appreciate her value to each of them. Doc became a mentor to the students, not only that summer, but for many, permanently.   

After her successful career at Queens College, Weddington was appointed Dean of Teacher Education at the City University of New York. She retired in May 1985. Dr. Weddington moved to Portland, Oregon where she died of natural causes on July 26, 2010. The Rachel T. Weddington Education Award Award is given to a graduating senior at Queens College who has demonstrated a commitment to the teaching of inner-city students and who is an outstanding student both in their education courses and in their major or co-major. 

Photo curtesy of the Phyllis Padow-Sederbaum Papers (SCA-0056). This item is protected by copyright and/or related rights. For more information contact Queens College Special Collections and Archives at QC.archives@qc.cuny.edu.

Helen Hendricks

Helen Hendricks was College Office Assistant of Student Activities in the Queens College Dean of Students Office. In that capacity, she was in a key position to support the Student Help Project and its young leaders, including Stan Shaw and Mike Wenger. Helen earned a B.A. with distinction (magna cum laude) from Queens College in 1978. She was later promoted to Assistant to the Dean as an advisor to support minority group students interested in entering graduate programs. Her efforts resulted in a significant increase in the admission and graduation of hundreds of students in law and medical school. In 1986, she became a Higher Education Officer. Hendricks retired from Queens College in 1992. 

 Rev. L. Francis Griffin, head of a local NAACP chapter in Farmville, Prince Edward County, VirginiaReverend L. Francis Griffin 

L. Francis Griffin was born the son of a Baptist preacher on September 15, 1917 in Norfolk, Virginia. He spent much of his youth in Farmville, where he returned in 1949 to become the minister of the First Baptist Church after serving in World War II. As a leader in the Black community, Reverend Griffin was also the president of the Prince Edward County Christian Association and the county coordinator of the NAACP. In his position, he led the fight for equality in education in Prince Edward County and demanded better schools for Black students. After public schools were closed rather than desegregated in 1959, Reverend Griffin and his wife helped to create training centers for local Black children where they could continue receiving some education. He also helped place many other children who had no access to education as a result of the school shutdown in other institutions across Virginia. In 1963, he coordinated with QC faculty member, Dr. Rachel Weddington, to welcome a small group of QC students to Prince Edward County to tutor local children for six weeks. The fight for education garnered national attention and Reverend Griffin sought the aid of the Kennedy administration to later open the Prince Edward Free School Association in 1963, providing Black students with free access to education. Reverend Griffin was known as the “fighting preacher” whose efforts in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s centered around educational initiatives. Reverend Griffin passed away on January 18, 1980. 

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Digital Collections. Citation: O'Halloran, Thomas J, photographer. Rev. L. Francis Griffin, head of a local NAACP chapter in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia, half-length portrait, facing front / TOH. Farmville Virginia, 1963. Sept. 16. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013650607/.

Reverend Goodwin Douglas on Main Street in Prince Edward County.Reverend Goodwin Douglas

Goodwin Douglas was the reverend of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Beulah Church in Farmville. As a young pastor, Reverend Douglas served as a mentor to youth in the community of Farmville. He was in charge of organizing local demonstrations with the NAACP Youth Council, which included Reverend Griffin’s son, Skip Griffin. Reverend Douglas served as a pastor at the Metropolitan AME Church in Cumberland and the Dickerson AME Church in Frostburg (both in Maryland) from 1965-1972. In his later years, Reverend Douglas was remembered as a pastor who brought others of all denominations together, as well as provided economic and developmental resources to local churches. He passed away on August 20, 2016. 

Photo curtesy of the Phyllis Padow-Sederbaum Papers (SCA-0056). This item is protected by copyright and/or related rights. For more information contact Queens College Special Collections and Archives at QC.archives@qc.cuny.edu.

Barbara Rose Johns

Barbara Rose Johns was born the daughter of Violet and Robert Johns in 1935. Her family moved from New York City to Prince Edward County during World War II to live with her maternal grandmother. As a young student at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Johns led a school strike on April 23, 1951. Johns and her fellow classmates walked out of their school to protest unequal resources and facilities in their high school within the Black community, as compared to white schools in the district.

Johns’ school strike garnered the support of NAACP lawyers Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill. The lawyers filed the case Davis v. Prince Edward in response to the Farmville community’s frustrations with substandard conditions. The case later became one of the five cases that the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed in the renowned Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Rather than complying with orders to integrate schools, the Prince Edward County school district was met with considerable opposition, leading to the closing of all public schools in 1959.

Eventually, Johns was sent to live with her uncle Vernon Johns in Montgomery, Alabama, to complete her education. She later attended Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Barbara Johns married Reverend William Powell and was a librarian in the Philadelphia Public Schools. She died in 1991 at the age of 56. The state of Virginia now celebrates April 23rd as Barbara Johns Day.

Photo courtesy of the Moton Museum. https://motonmuseum.org.

Student Help: Lived Experience Project

The purpose of the Student Help: Lived Experience Project is to record the insights and lessons learned by the volunteers of the Student Help Project. Documentation primarily in the form of oral history interviews were gathered from Student Help Project volunteers, supporters, and faculty advisors to supplement the Queens College Library’s existing Civil Rights and Social Justice Collections. Oral history interviews about the Student Help Project have been made available to researchers through the Queens Memory Project, an ongoing community archiving project supported by the Queens College Library and Queens Public Library. 

With the help of Victoria Fernandez, the 2020-2021 Freda S. and J. Chester Johnson Civil Rights and Social Justice Archives Fellow and student of the QC Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, the Queens College Library conducted several interviews to record the multitude of experiences related to this educational initiative. Click on the “Explore the Collections” tab on the navigation panel to browse the oral history interviews with QC alumni, staff, and other key individuals related to the QC Student Help Project. 

To contribute your own experiences to the QC Special Collections and Archives in the form of an interview, written response, or a donation of personal materials, contact us at qc.archives@qc.cuny.edu