“The Only Life I Know” Moton Forum On Impact Of PE School Closings

May 2, 2003

Story by Ken Woodley of the Farmville Herald May 2, 2003

FARMVILLE – Earl Townsend quit only once, and then just for two weeks during his senior year.

“I had had enough,” he said during last week’s forum at the R. R. Moton Museum on the school closings in Prince Edward. “I had had my fill.”

Townsend, a local minister and officer in the Farmville Police Department, was 20 – he would be 21 years old by graduation in 1974 – and he recalled telling himself, “No teacher 24 years of age is going to be telling me what to do.”

The five-year school closure meant many students, like Townsend, were much older than classmates whose educations were not interrupted between 1959 and 1964.

It also meant there were students who never completed their educations.

“I remember sitting at home with my mom for two weeks watching General Hospital every day,” said Townsend, one of three speakers. “And that was enough to send me back to school.

“I decided ‘I’m going back to school. I’m seeing this through,’” he said.

Townsend remembers being 21 and sitting in a class with eighth graders to complete a graduation requirement. He recalls being a 16-year old sixth grader, relatives going to school in other localities, unaware of what had happened in Prince Edward, asking questions.

“They would ask us, ‘You’re 16. Why are you in the sixth grade? Are you slow?’ Because they didn’t fully understand what was going on,” Townsend said. “And I told them, ‘No, I’m as smart as anybody else. I may be 16 and in the sixth grade but I’m doing okay.’”

Not everyone did okay.

“I remember cousins and friends,” he said, “dropping out along the way.”

The Moton Museum forum asked its speakers to talk about the impact of the school closings on their own lives. The invitation, Townsend said, made him “look deeply into myself.”

He concluded two things. First, that he carries no anger and, secondly, he’ll never know how his life might have been different if public schools hadn’t closed in the county to avoid integration.

“Having Christ in my life and being the person that I am I have no animosity toward anyone, no shape, form, or fashion,” Townsend said, standing in his police uniform next to the stage from which Barbara Johns led fellow R. R. Moton High School students on their historic strike on April 23, 1951 against separate and unequal facilities, which led to the county’s inclusion in the landmark Brown v. Board decision of 1954 striking down segregation in public schools.

“As Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them.’ “Forgive them,” Townsend said, “for they know not really what they do.”

The school closings and they eventually triumphant struggle against segregation, Townsend speculated, “may have made us as a nation of stronger people. If you’ve never been down how do you appreciate being up? And you can be down and stay down or you can be down and fight your way back up.

“Did it put us down for a minute? Sure it did. Did we make a comeback? Sure we did. And we’re still coming back,” the police officer said. “I’m just thankful things today are as well as they are.”

Looking at the audience, the sun setting outside the national historic landmark, Townsend said, “What impact did the school closings have on my lifetime? To be honest, I’m really not sure…and I’ve often asked myself had I graduated in 1970 when I should have, instead of 1974, where would I be now and what would I be doing.

“And that question,” he said, “will forever remain unanswered. Time does not go back. Time goes forward…”

Beyond the windows of the museum, traffic moved in two directions, up and down Main Street, north and south, toward different destinations.

“…This is the only life I know,” Townsend said. “I can speculate and speculate…but I’m pleased with the way I am and what I am doing.”