MLK Jr Memorial Commission Commemorates Public School Closings in Virginia

Since its establishment by the Virginia State Legislature in 1992, the MLK Jr Memorial Commission has been committed to doing the following: promote the legacy and continuation of Dr. King’s work; coordinate and lead the observance of the King Holiday in the Commonwealth; provide year-round educational and commemorative activities; educate the public regarding Dr. King’s principles, achievements, and contributions; emphasize the totality of Dr. King as a scholar, theologian, orator, conciliator, community leader, and author; facility public policy analysis relative to his principles and teachings; foster appreciation of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the Commonwealth; and provide opportunities for public discourse on contemporary issues.

On Monday, October 3, 2011, the Commission arrived in Farmville, VA to fulfill the latter of its roles, specifically to commemorate the 50th anniversary of public school closings in Virginia. In 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors refused to appropriate the funds necessary to run the public school system in the area, affectively shutting down the public schools. The schools did not reopen until 1964 after five years had passed.

To commemorate this struggle, the MLK Jr Commission first visited the Robert Russa Moton Museum, the historic site where the fight for better facilities and ultimately integrated education began. The Commission admired the museum’s renovations and the competition of Phase I of Moton 2011, a permanent exhibition of the Moton story. Many wandered through the school’s old classrooms, some reliving their memories and others picturing what life had been like for the students who attended it. After a self-guided tour of the building, members of the Commission joined one another in the auditorium to watch the film Strike: April 23, 1951 by Tim Reid, a movie reenacting the Moton strike that led to the desegregation of our nation’s schools. Robert Hamlin, President of the Robert Russa Moton Museum, introduced the film and highlighted the importance of the museum, its story, and its message, as well as the completion of Phase I in his introduction.

At the conclusion of the movie, members of the Commission gathered at the steps of the Robert Russa Moton Museum to start a tour of the city of Farmville given by Dr. Larissa Smith Ferguson of Longwood University. The group admired the city and its historic sites, asking questions about each one to learn more about the community. They visited the First Baptist Church, the Beulah African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Fuqua School, the County Courthouse, the site where Farmville High School once stood, and Hampden-Sydney College. Dr. Christopher B. Howard, the 24th President of Hampden-Sydney College, greeted the Commission upon its arrival and spoke to the group about the college’s recent exhibit on Helen Suzman and the college’s commitment to serve as a men’s college that appreciates women’s contributions to society. Barbara Howard, his wife, spoke as well, discussing her own experience growing up during Apartheid and Helen Suzman’s role in bringing an end to the institution. The Commission also met Mark Suzman, Helen Suzman’s great-nephew.

As the tour of Hampden-Sydney came to a close, the members of the Commission traveled to Prince Edward County High School for the final leg of their trip – to a town hall meeting at Longwood University to facilitate a public discussion concerning the history of Massive Resistance, its impact and legacy in the affected locality and the Commonwealth, as well as to solicit ways to promote reconciliation and a common vision for the future. Citizens from throughout Prince Edward County gathered in the high school’s auditorium to discuss what the school closings mean, how it affected their lives, and what can be done in the future.

The event began with a greeting from Russell Dove, chairman of the Prince Edward County School Board; Wade Bartlett, County Administrator of Prince Edward County; Barbara Howard of Hampden-Sydney College; and Lacy Ward, Director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum. Ward, remarking on the huge impact of the Moton strike on our nation, said, “At the heart of the museum is the fact that what these students started in that school room actually rippled through every level of education.” Brian Grogan, director and producer of the documentary They Closed Our Schools, spoke as well and previewed a trailer for the film to the audience.

The event then shifted focus to a panel about the Prince Edward County School closings. Ferguson introduced the topic and the panel speakers the audience – Ms. Dorothy Holcomb, former student and a Robert Russa Moton Museum Board member, and Ms. Eunice Carwile, former student and a faculty member at Hampden-Syndey College.

At the prompting of Dr. Ferguson, Ms. Holcomb and Ms. Carwile first shared their personal experiences during the school closings. In 1959, Ms. Carwile and her family received a letter about the Prince Edward Academy, inviting her and her siblings to attend the school at a cost. The prince, however, proved prohibitive so her family moved to Burkeville, Nottoway County so she and her five siblings could attend school there. Years later, upon returning to Prince Edward County, she learned that there were many farmers’ children who could not leave the county, as their families’ livelihoods were tied to the soil, and who did not get an education as a result of it.

In the same year that Ms. Carwile and her family moved to Nottoway County, Ms. Holcomb’s father informed her that the schools would be closed for the 1959-1960 school year and she began attending schools in the basement of a church. As the years passed and it became evident that the schools would not reopen anytime soon, Ms. Holcomb and her family rented their house in Prospect, Prince Edward County to another family and pretended to live in a house in nearby Appomattox County so the children could attend school there. After the schools reopened in Prince Edward, her family abandoned their house in Prospect, VA and formally moved to Appomattox County. The reason her father gave her was simple. “I’m not going to give them a chance to do that to you again.”

Both women also discussed the emotional impact that the school closings had on them. Ms. Carwile remarked on her feelings of isolation while living in Burkeville. Having grown up in Prince Edward County with a distinctly different culture, Carwile stated that she and her family “never really belonged” in the Burkeville community. The loss created by the removal of the right to go to school was particularly painful for her. “They had taken away something that is distinctly American… and that is a free public education.” Holcomb echoed Carwile’s feelings of loss. “I felt like we were victims in the situation we were involved in. You felt like it was like it was a disservice to everybody involved.” Together they revealed the shared story of Prince Edward County – that the entire community felt the impact of the school closings.

The panel concluded with a question and answer session that allowed the audience members to speak. Much of the session was dominated by questions about the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Program, a program that financially supports the efforts of the children-now-adults directly affected by the school closings throughout Virginia to continue their education at every stage. Questions of and proposals for how Prince Edward County might reconcile filled the room as well. Several propositions were discussed and many in the room saw it fit to try to make them a reality, to help those affected by the school closings and contribute to the county’s healing process.

After a day-long trip in Farmville, the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission left with a better understanding of the community’s past and present and optimism for its future.