Equity & Diversity

At the Crossroads

By Debra Viadero — March 24, 1999 22 min read
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Red, white, and blue signs marking historic Civil War sites are as common as stop signs amid the rolling farmlands of this southern Virginia community. The war took its last official gasp in and around this county. The final big battle of the war, fought 20 minutes east of here at Sayler’s Creek, killed more than 3,000 Confederate stalwarts. And Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant spent the night in Farmville, the Prince Edward County seat, before heading to Appomattox Court House 28 miles away for the formal surrender.

Nearly 100 years later, the white people of the county were still tilting at some of the same windmills. This time, the enemy was the U.S. Supreme Court.

A school desegregation case that originated here was one of the five decided by the high court on the watershed day in 1954 when it handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. But rather than bend to the will of the federal court as the other communities involved in the legal fight eventually did, Prince Edward County closed its public schools--and kept them padlocked for five long years.

Now, with the curtain about to drop on the 20th century, the residents of the county have at long last finished fighting.

White students have trickled back into the public schools, making them among the most integrated in the nation.And the school system, once deemed the worst in the state, is now widely considered to be among the best in this rural corner of the Old Dominion.

Isaac, who was a friend of Barbara Johns’ younger sister, was one of the student leaders called upon by Johns to help lead the strike that day in 1951. Isaac’s 83-year-old mother, Vera J. Allen, remembers how her family first learned of the news.

“My husband was downtown, and a man said, ‘Didn’t I see your daughter walking with that group going downtown? Why don’t you go and pull her out?’ My husband said, ‘Well, I didn’t put her in,’ ” recalls Allen, who was a visiting teacher in the black school system at the time. “We were scared to death.”

When Allen’s teaching contract came up for renewal the following year, the county declined to renew it. She spent the next few years working first in the Wayne County, N.C., school system and then in the Caroline County, Va., schools. She commuted home on weekends, where her husband was running the family funeral home and raising the couple’s two teenage daughters.

Allen came back to Farmville to stay in 1960, eventually becoming assistant to the superintendent of the Prince Edward County school system. Now retired, she is helping spearhead a communitywide campaign to transform the old Moton school into a civil rights museum. The group is about halfway toward its goal of raising the $300,000 needed to buy the property from the county.

“People always ask, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ We had a family business and a home,” Allen says. “In those days, getting a home was quite an achievement.”

The Allen girls--Edwilda Isaac and her sister, Edna Allen Bledsoe, 60--managed to graduate before the schools closed. They went on to out-of-state colleges. Both are teachers themselves now. Isaac teaches band at the public middle school, and Bledsoe is on the faculty at Longwood College, a state institution in downtown Farmville.

Younger black students, though, were forced to scramble for an education. Some never returned to their hometown.

Rita Moseley, who was 12 when the schools closed, stayed home for two years until a Girl Scout leader urged her mother to find a way for her to continue her schooling. The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that found school placements for a few of the older black children, sent Moseley to live with a white family of educators in Blacksburg, Va., so that she could attend an integrated public school there.

“It was very frightening. I had never left home before--not even to spend the night with anyone--and I had to leave my family and friends,” says Moseley, 51.

Even now, decades later, the pain is fresh. Moseley, like other adults whose educations were disrupted by the school closings, cries as she tells her story. Blacksburg is roughly a three-hour drive from Farmville, but to the young, fearful girl, “it seemed like 1,000 miles away.”

When federal money was channeled into the county in 1963 to set up free schools for black students, the elderly mother and daughter who had taken Moseley in offered to pay her college tuition if she would stay. In Blacksburg, Moseley had turned out to be a stellar student, earning the highest grades in her class.

“But I couldn’t [stay in Blacksburg],” she says. “I wanted to be with my family again.”

Back at school in Farmville, Moseley was eager to see old friends and classmates. She quickly found, however, that half of them were gone.

A few white community leaders at one point had offered to raise money for separate, private schools for blacks. But the offer was widely regarded with suspicion, and only one student applied.

Consequently, most of the students Moseley yearned to see that day had missed out on schooling altogether during the long lockout. In their late teens and early 20s at that point, they felt too old to go back to school.

Anna Harrison cried, too, when her mother packed her off on a train and sent her to live with a brother in New York City at the start of the school closings.

“I wasn’t used to being in a big city,” says Harrison, who was 14 at the time and had to shop, cook, and keep house for her brother. “When I came back, I saw the chains on the school door, and I felt like I was cheated. I never knew my older sisters and brother. I made up my mind if I ever had a family, they would stay together regardless.”

Harrison earned failing grades her first semester at the integrated high school she was attending in New York. She hoped her marks would persuade her mother to let her come back home.

“But the guidance counselor--Mrs. Cosby--at my school, said, ‘No, you can do it. Your parents sent you here, and you must do it,’ ” Harrison, now 56, recalls. She followed the counselor’s advice and earned a diploma.

“If you were to listen to everyone from that time, they’d have a different story, and it’s like a quilt,” says Penny Hackett, 42, who spent 1st grade attending school in a neighboring county. “To each person in their lives, it meant something different, and we all know quilts are handed down from family to family. They mean something.”

To get to school, Hackett and her brothers traveled each morning to a great-uncle’s roadside market. There, a white teacher from neighboring Appomattox County picked them up and took them with her to school.

“If she had errands to run after school, we had to duck down in our seats because we were not supposed to be transported across county lines,” Hackett recalls.

The hiding and the separation ended for good in 1964. In that year, an authority no less than the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in Griffin v. Board of Education, ordered the public schools back into operation.

All three women are now part of the school system that once rejected them. Hackett teaches art at Prince Edward County High School in the same building first erected to replace Moton. Moseley, a parent of two of the school’s graduates, is the school secretary, and Harrison is a substitute teacher.

Harrison’s youngest daughter, Dwauleka, a 10th grader at the high school, has never known the educational hardships her mother endured. Dwauleka is a B student who plans to go to college and major in physical therapy or sports medicine. And most of her classes, she has found, have been pretty evenly divided along racial lines.

Dwauleka recalls having felt the sting of prejudice in school only once. It came in a 9th grade mathematics class in which a handful of white students sat apart from the rest of the class, never speaking to Dwauleka or her black classmates.

But more than half of Dwauleka’s own friends are white. She knows most of them from the basketball, softball, and volleyball teams she plays on, and she sees them outside school as well.

“I just mix with everybody,” Dwauleka says. “I have a couple of black friends who say, ‘You’re always hanging around those white people.’ It doesn’t really bother me.” And if her mother’s experience has taught her anything, she says, it is to get an education herself. Because, her mother has told her, once you have an education, no one can ever take it away from you.

In many ways, white students, too, were victims of the school closings. But by September 1959, the white community had established Prince Edward Academy, a private school system extensive enough to serve some 1,500 white children, writes Bob Smith, whose 1965 book, They Closed Their Schools, chronicles the Prince Edward saga. The white children were bused to makeshift classrooms in churches, stores, and homes throughout the county. As adults, some still recall the feeling of peering inside the windows of locked public school buildings and wishing they could be inside.

By 1961, the private school system’s founders had raised enough money to build the academy’s first permanent structure, an upper school building set on a sprawling campus just outside town.

“If you were on the inside, you could see this thing was going to drag on and on,” says Robert Taylor, the only surviving founder of the private school. “I had three children at the time, and something had to be done.”

Now 79 and in ill health, Taylor lives in a spacious brick colonial surrounded by a cream-colored picket fence. The house, built by the contracting company he owns, sits on a hill above town. A son and daughter live just steps away.

His great-grandfather died in the Civil War, just a month after joining the Confederate army. And Taylor recounts casualty numbers from the war and unjust tariffs imposed on the South as clearly as if they had happened yesterday.

To him, the county’s desegregation battle, like the great war itself, was a matter of states’ rights.

“At that time, people hadn’t quite knuckled under to the federal government all over the country like it is now,” he says in a slow, drawling baritone. “We were selected--I think primarily by Senator [Harry Flood] Byrd [Sr.]--to carry the torch on this thing.” The late Democratic U.S. senator, an ardent segregationist, had tried to organize a campaign of “massive resistance” throughout the state. Only Prince Edward County held fast.

But Taylor concedes he also very much opposed desegregation himself.

“Black children with a 7th grade education did not have any more education than 4th or 5th grade white children,” he says. “If we had done it gradually and brought children up so they could get to a par, I don’t think there would’ve been a problem. But look at what you’re graduating now, and you’ve got this social promotion going on.”

His own children and grandchildren all went to private schools, most of them graduating from Prince Edward Academy. Taylor eventually became the chairman of the academy’s board.

But if his thinking hasn’t turned around in the 40 years since the school closings, the school he helped found is at least trying to transform itself.

With its 60-acre campus and California-style school buildings, Prince Edward Academy, under a new name, these days serves 600 students--less than half the original enrollment--in prekindergarten through 12th grade. And those students, once primarily from Prince Edward, now come from 13 Southside Virginia counties.

Dropping enrollments nearly caused the school to go under in the early 1990s. Taylor rescued it with a call to J.B. Fuqua, a wealthy Atlanta businessman with whom he had grown up in the nearby village of Prospect. Fuqua initially put $10 million into the school with the proviso that it be remade into a “model school of excellence for rural America.”

“When he said a ‘rural model of excellence,’ he also meant to open the school to everyone who qualifies,” says Carolyn Culicerto, the academy’s communications director. Its leaders at the time seized on the opportunity, changing the mascot and school colors almost overnight and rechristening the school Fuqua Academy after its benefactor.

But the sudden transition proved rocky at first. To set it right, J.B. Fuqua four years ago lured Ruth S. Murphy, a public school administrator from North Carolina, to take over as the school’s president. Murphy instituted block scheduling and an open-governance policy, holding school board meetings in public and enlisting the advice of her faculty in decisionmaking. She introduced multiage classes in the early grades so that children could progress at their own rates, and she opened up the school’s summer pool memberships to the wider Farmville community.

“Diversity strengthens a school community,” Fuqua’s rewritten mission statement reads, “and should be embraced.”

Currently, 5 percent of Fuqua’s students are members of minority groups. The faces of black and white students smile out from the school’s promotional brochure. And Murphy has accepted an invitation to join the board of the Moton museum project.

“I never thought that I was walking into a hotbed of racism,” she says, noting that the school’s first African-American student was admitted back in 1984. “I think times have changed, but we needed to be able to articulate that.”

Times are also changing at the Farmville Herald, the newspaper whose cigar-chomping owner, J. Barrye Wall Sr., once led the crusade against integration here. He died in 1985. His long-haired, 43-year-old grandson, Steve, now publishes the paper in the same unrenovated brick building it has occupied since its 1890 founding. Another grandson, Bidgood, runs a new radio station next door and sits on the county board of supervisors.

Although Steve Wall graduated from Fuqua when it was still known as Prince Edward Academy, his own two children attend the public elementary school here.

“We went to all the local schools and studied the elementary program,” he says. “It was done strictly on the basis of what was best for my children.”

Unlike his grandfather, the younger Wall leaves most of the editorial writing at the paper to his editor, J. Kendrick Woodley III. Woodley, who keeps a volume on the Beatles in his second-story office and wears a “WWJD” bracelet--shorthand for “What Would Jesus Do?"--has been a leading booster of the Moton museum project. When the paper first got wind of now-discarded plans by the county to sell the Moton High property to a commercial developer, Woodley sat down at his keyboard and unleashed an impassioned editorial.

“If we’re going to tear down the former R.R. Moton High School,” he wrote, “let’s go ahead and tear down Independence Hall, too, and dump the Liberty Bell in the river.”

Woodley also sits on the project’s board of directors. For his efforts in support of the museum, the black community two years ago gave him a plaque that he displays near his desk.

He sees the museum project as an exemplar of improving race relations in the county. Bringing together the town’s black and white communities, Woodley says, “has been a kind of mission for me.”

“You feel like there’s something worth accomplishing here, and this is the world in microcosm,” says the bearded editor, 41, who came to the paper right after graduating from Hampden-Sydney College, a Presbyterian school for men, six miles down the road from Farmville. “And, if this is the world in microcosm, and you can help bring about this coming together, then there’s hope for bringing larger parts of the world together.”

A statue of a Confederate soldier stands outside Farmville United Methodist Church. Inside, the Rev. Sylvia S. Meadows, the associate pastor, also talks about racial unity as a personal mission.

Like many of the students who went to the “white” school, Meadows, 44, never suspected there was anything unusual about her schooling.

“When you grow up going to an all-white school, you just assume that everybody white goes to an all-white school,” she says. “I didn’t know what racism was when I was a child. But I do now.”

She graduated from Prince Edward Academy in 1974, a popular student who was twice named to the homecoming queen’s court. Four of her early elementary school years, however, were spent in private classes in the basement of the church that now employs her.

Though her own family never expressed any racist sentiments, Meadows remembers hearing a few jokes about blacks from schoolmates. But those comments were rare, she says, and in the years since she left the academy, she has heard black colleagues make jokes about whites, too.

“I can remember some things that were scary,” Meadows says, sitting in the quiet of her dimly lit church office. “I can remember my parents getting a phone call in the middle of the night to come to a local bank and get grants for tuition at the private school. Maybe my spirit sensed there was evil there.”

To skirt a court order against using public money for private schools, county leaders at one point in the crisis arranged to open up local banks at midnight, minutes after the order had expired, in order to distribute tuition grants to local families before a judge could reimpose the order later that morning. Robert Taylor, who confirms this story, says the school and some of the parents were later ordered to repay the money.

Meadows’ perspective on the desegregation conflict broadened when she got a job as a teacher’s aide in the predominantly black Prince Edward County school system in the late 1970s. She found students eager to be educated and black teachers whose work inspired her. She stayed on and became a teacher herself and then a guidance counselor in the public schools.

Now, in her second career, as a minister, Meadows finds that her lifetime journey has taken her almost full circle. She currently is a doctoral student at the school of theology at Virginia Union University in Richmond--a predominantly black institution where she is often the only white student in her class. And, last November, when a communitywide Thanksgiving Eve service was held at Moton High School, Meadows gave the sermon.

Her own daughter, Lacy, an 8th grader, has also known what it feels like to be the only white student in class. But for Lacy, who has spent her entire school career in public schools, the feeling has been less unnatural.

“When you get out in the real world, you have to know how to get along with people of all races anyway,” she says matter-of-factly.

Meadows is awaiting a transfer to another church outside the county. But in her remaining months at the largely white Farmville United Methodist, she plans to, as she puts it, “proclaim what needs to be heard here” to dispel some of the mistrust that some whites and blacks still harbor toward one another. Healing those old wounds has, to her, become a calling.

“I had a dream once that I was on a hill, and there was arguing going on, and it was between a black person and a white person,” she says. “Someone was getting ready to either hit the black person with a stick or shoot them, and in my dream, I jumped in front of them.”

The desegregation conflict here, however, was as remarkable for its lack of violence as it was for its longevity. One night soon after the black students’ strike, a cross was burned on the grounds of Moton High School. By day, though, county residents maintained a veneer of courtesy toward one another as they shopped and worked side by side. These were families that had known one another for generations.

When, under President John F. Kennedy, the federal government set up a program for Farmville’s school-less youths with money from the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, Robert Taylor and Francis Griffin headed it together. Griffin, who was the pastor of First Baptist Church, grew up three blocks from Taylor.

Taylor credits the long-deceased civil rights leader with helping to prevent the violence that racked so many other communities torn by racial conflict. He says Griffin always informed the sheriff when demonstrations were planned. U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to town, and their visits passed peacefully.

Others also did their share to ensure peace. Rita Moseley waited years to tell her own two children about the school years she had missed growing up. To do so any earlier, she feared, might embitter them toward their white neighbors and schoolmates.

“I blame the government--not the people themselves,” says Anna Harrison. “They [the government] had the power to get those doors opened.”

Given his own deep roots in rural Southside Virginia, James M. Anderson Jr. became the natural choice to lead what was at first a virtually all-black school system into the modern age of integration. Anderson, who is white, was born and bred in neighboring Buckingham County. He believes the black community wanted him for superintendent of schools because his reputation had preceded him. The white community, reluctantly going along, trusted his heritage.

In Buckingham County, where Anderson had been the high school principal, the honor of valedictorian traditionally went to the student with the highest grade point average. Under his watch, the recognition, which came with a chance to speak at graduation, went to a black student for the first time in 1969.

When Anderson’s superintendent heard the news, he called the principal and asked him to reverse his decision because the student had come to Buckingham Central High School as a transfer student.

The determined principal pointed out that the previous year’s valedictorian, a white, had also been a transfer student. No one had complained then.

The African-American student, the superintendent countered, had made all her good grades in the black school. Not so, the principal politely retorted.

If you persist in this course of action, the superintendent finally said, neither he nor any county officials would attend the graduation ceremony.

“At commencement, we had two completely empty rows,” Anderson, 66, recalls. No superintendent, no school board member, no county supervisor came to the ceremony.

“I just could not, in all conscience, sleep at night to do that injustice to that young lady,” he says of the superintendent’s request.

Anderson also bucked the status quo by permitting his white high school baseball team to play the black Prince Edward County High School team in 1970 when few other schools would. He remembers that the Prince Edward team showed up wearing mismatched uniforms, most of the pieces hand-me-downs from Hampden-Sydney College. A good-sized crowd had come for the game, too, and Anderson surmises they were expecting to see a match with Prince Edward Academy, the private school.

Anderson’s actions finally landed him in a paper-shuffling job in the county school system, where he sat until a Prince Edward County school administrator invited him to apply for the $15,000-a-year post as superintendent.

When he came to Prince Edward in 1972, only 7 percent of the school system’s 1,850 students were white. When he retired 25 years later, the racial mix in the student population almost exactly reflected county demographics. Now, of the system’s 2,700 students, 58 percent are African-American, and 41 percent are white. The remaining 1 percent is a mix of other minority groups. Moreover, 90 percent of the county’s school-age children attend the public schools.

The bigger challenge for the school system today is poverty. More than half the county’s public school students come from families poor enough to qualify for the federal free- or reduced-priced lunch program. Many of them are likely the children of the county’s “crippled generation,” the term coined for the students whose educations ended when the school doors were locked.

If there is any other vestige of segregation now, black community leaders say, it likely lies in the district’s programs for gifted students, with whites far outnumbering blacks. But school officials, aware of the imbalance, say the problem is that too few black parents refer their children to the program. Officials also say they are working to correct the situation.

Even in the school system’s top job back in the ‘70s, Anderson found himself on the outside looking in, just as he had as a Buckingham County principal. When he presented his first budget request to the county board of supervisors, the chairman asked him, “Why don’t you run your schools like ours?” By “ours,” Anderson explains, the chairman was referring to the private school.

At the time, the state had just passed a law requiring school systems to provide a base level of funding. Meeting that base the first year, Anderson recalls, required a 48 percent increase in school funding.

So he spent much of the next few years battling for money to renovate old schools and build new ones to stem overcrowding. He says one elementary school, built without walls on the inside, became so congested that a visitor opening the door to the shell-like structure had to step between student desks to enter the building.

A turning point came in 1979, when Longwood College closed its campus school, which had served the children of faculty members from both Longwood and Hampden-Sydney. When it shut down, more than half its former students enrolled in the public school system. By then, a new president of Hampden-Sydney, Josiah Bunting III, had also arrived in town and was sending his own children to public school. With so many prominent, highly educated whites enrolling their children in the public schools, other white families may have figured the education there must be all right.

Anderson is proud of the fact that the demographic transformation of Prince Edward County’s schools came without violence, busing, magnet schools, or federal programs.

His idea was simpler: Ignore the competition and improve the schools.

Besides improving regular instruction, he took care to ensure that the schools offered something for everyone. Under his watch, foreign-language offerings in the district’s one high school and one middle school expanded from Spanish and French to include Latin, Russian, Japanese, and German.

Extracurricular activities sprouted like dandelions at the high school, making it the envy of some students in neighboring counties. These days, Prince Edward High School offers everything from literary journals and debate clubs to tennis and golf teams. And its yearbook attests to the fact that, by and large, those teams and clubs include students of both races.

But Anderson knew he had reached his goal when the county board of supervisors unanimously granted his request to spend $5 million to renovate the high school--a job that was completed just last summer. His work done, Anderson retired in 1997.

A seventh-generation Southerner himself, Anderson says he understands the sentiments that led Prince Edward’s leading residents to take the stand they chose four decades ago. His own grandfather was a Confederate soldier.

“I will defend to the last breath his having fought for the Confederacy because of the question of states’ rights,” says the superintendent. But when his grandfather left the army, Anderson also proudly notes, he got a job teaching in a one-room school for black students.

A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 1999 edition of Education Week as At the Crossroads


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