Farmville school was a civil rights wellspring
by Steven Johnson, Staff Writer
Rita Odom was screaming. But she didn’t want anyone to hear.
At the house of a stranger 150 miles from home, the 12-year-old cried under her breath, “Mama, don’t leave, mama! Please, please, don’t leave me, mama!” as she watched her mother ride away, no hug, no kiss, no goodbye.
But Odom knew better than to give voice to her screams. For if Rosa Margaret Odom, a single mother, had heard her daughter’s anguish, she might have changed her mind and brought her back home to Prince Edward County, where the child had no chance at an education.
“I feel like even though I went away to school for two years, my life was stolen from me because it took me away from my world,,” says Odom, now Rita Odom Moseley, nearly 60 years after her mother surrendered her so she could attend classes in Blacksburg while public schools in Prince Edward were closed for five years.
“I have two children and I still can’t bring myself to the point where if it happened again, I would let either one of them go,” she reflects. “So that showed me how important education was to my mother.”
It is a story without precedent in the history of the United States. From 1959 to 1964, officials in the Southside Virginia county locked the doors to public schools for 3,300 students rather than integrate the school system.
Many whites ended up at segregated private academies, leaving blacks and poor whites on the outside looking in. Some like Odom Moseley were delivered to the custody of a friend, relative or stranger who could get them into a school. Others never again sat in a classroom.
“You saw a significant drop-off in the success of the county after the schools closed,” says Cainan Townsend, a Prince Edward County native and director of education and public programs at the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville.
“No school for your kids, you leave. No school for your employees’ children, businesses don’t come here. Students who might have contributed as doctors or lawyers went elsewhere and never came back. It had a cascading effect.”
The one-story, red-brick Moton Museum is a National Historic Landmark, dedicated to teaching later generations how the events of the 1950s and 1960s relate to today. In 1951, though, it was an overcrowded high school and ground zero in the struggle for educational equality.
SEIZE THE MOMENT
Joy Cabarrus knew her friend Barbara Johns was up to something. She just didn’t know what.
In 1951, Cabarrus was a 12-year-old at Robert Russa Moton High School where Johns was a junior. The faculty was commendable; the conditions were not. Built in 1939 for 180 students, the school swelled with more than 450 by 1951. No gymnasium. A single microscope and a frog in formaldehyde for three science classes. What pages were not ripped from hand-me-down textbooks were laced with smears and epithets. Teachers conducted classes in school buses and tar paper shacks the size of chicken coops.
“If it rained, you had to put an umbrella up so that your papers wouldn’t get wet, the ones you were trying to take your notes on,” says Cabarrus, now Joy Cabarrus Speakes. “How conducive was that to learning?”
On April 23, 1951, one of Johns’ classmates phoned Moton Principal Boyd Jones and lured him out of the office on the pretense that unruly students were acting up at the Farmville bus station. In the meantime, notes with the initials “B.J.” summoned everyone to the school auditorium. When the stage curtains parted, on stage was “B.J.” — Barbara Johns, not Boyd Jones.
She started with the Pledge of Allegiance, then launched into an iconic speech, carefully reproduced for today in a Moton Museum film: “We have been given crumbs off the table … We must strike for a better education. Just follow us.”
They did. More than 450 students walked out, vowing to stay away until decision-makers guaranteed them a better facility.
“She taught us how to combine courage with vision,” says Rev. J. Samuel Williams, who as Moton senior class president watched from an auditorium door. “If you don’t have a leader or leadership, you don’t have a mass movement. There has to be somebody to take the bridle, and it was Barbara with her calmness.”
As the two-week strike made national headlines, Johns reached out to the Richmond office of the NAACP and lawyer Oliver Hill. NAACP representatives told parents and students that they would represent them, but not simply to get a new school. It was time to pursue full educational equality.
Some 117 students were plaintiffs in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward. As it advanced through the courts, the litigation was combined with lawsuits from four states for a case styled Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. It was the only student-driven part of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that held separate educational facilities were inherently unequal.
Seven years passed between Brown and the day that Odom Moseley sat in the back seat of a car with her mother and a Girl Scout leader to go to her new home in Blacksburg.
Amid years of defiant proclamations and court battles, Prince Edward took the lead in Virginia’s massive resistance to integration by curtailing public school funding effective July 1, 1959. That ended education for an estimated 3,300 students.
“Brown v. Board of Education was huge, but it took five years for the first schools to become desegregated in Virginia and it took years and years for other schools throughout the state to become integrated,” notes the museum’s Townsend.
By then, Johns was in Alabama. She’d experienced death threats and a cross burning in her yard and eventually became a librarian in Philadelphia. Cabarrus Speakes’ brother went with cousins in Ohio; a female classmate stared at him and told him she had never seen a black person before. Many students ended their educations.
Williams, who went to Shaw University and is pastor at Levi Baptist Church in Green Bay, Virginia, says Prince Edward’s determination to suppress education was not an exercise of state’s rights, but a tool intended to stifle advancement and opportunity.
“In all my years in working with race relations, the basic thing, the underlying thing, is education. The thinking was, ‘Cut them off at the beginning process of learning,’” Williams says. “It really damaged a lot of people and I can tell it even today with some people who have children or grandchildren.”
After staying at home for two years, Odom Moseley attended a one-room school in Blacksburg, staying with an elderly woman and her daughter. It was a traumatic time; her mother could only afford to visit her once. After two years away, she returned to Prince Edward in 1963 to an unsanctioned free school.
The county didn’t reopen public schools until May 1964 after the Supreme Court rebuffed its attempts to subsidize all-white Prince Edward Academy with taxpayer money. That fall, nearly 1,500 students attended school for the first time in five years. Odom Moseley, author of several books on her experience, returned to graduate in 1967 at the age of 20.
“No matter what happened to me, I didn’t allow it to make me bitter or hateful like some people did. I never told my kids about it until they were old enough to understand it,” she says. “I saw how other kids grew up hating people and not really understanding. So I waited until they got old enough before I told them about the closing of the schools.”
Bob Hamlin left and didn’t return for 40 years.
When Moton closed in fall 1959, Hamlin was a senior, months from achieving a momentous goal.
“One of the promises that I had made to my mom was that I would graduate high school simply because I would be the first in my family,” says Hamlin, a native of Rice, just east of Farmville. “It was really painful when schools closed and I had no idea what was going to happen next.”
Kittrell Junior College in North Carolina threw him a lifeline. Operated by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the school expanded its small high school unit to accommodate nearly 60 students from Moton.
“It was any port in a storm,” says Hamlin, who graduated from the high school and junior college programs before serving 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. “I really didn’t have any interest in going back to Prince Edward. … I certainly was disappointed. It took a while for me to figure out a direction to go in.”
In 1999, with his mother’s health declining, Hamlin returned to the county and worked for Telamon Corp., a nonprofit supported by the U.S. Labor Department, overseeing in-school and out-of-school youth programs for south-central Virginia. By then, the old Moton school had seen better days. It served as a primary school until the early 1990s, when a group of citizens scraped up $300,000 through yard sales, fish fries and community organizing to buy the dilapidated property from the county and turn it into a museum.
Hamlin started getting involved with the museum. Within a few years, he had the keys to unlock its doors as president of the Moton board of directors. His story had come full circle — and then would add a twist.
For in 1959, Hamlin could not have set foot on the campus of Prince Edward Academy, now known as Fuqua Academy, which sprung up when the county closed public education. Now he sits on its board of trustees.
“The head of Fuqua asked me if I would consider becoming a member of that board,” Hamlin says. “I felt like we needed to help the county to continue to heal. And I said, ‘Well, what better way to do than to become become a member of that?’”
Through determination and a strategic partnership with nearby Longwood College, the Moton Museum has taken its place as a centerpiece of the civil rights movement. Cabarrus Speakes is a driving force behind a scholarship program that has raised more than $400,000 since 2010 for students who are lineal descendants of those affected by the closings.
In addition to extensive displays and artifacts on the strike and subsequent school closure, the museum offers public programs, book signings, film screenings and operates as a civil rights training ground. Townsend calls it “a safe space” to come together and talk about issues such as housing discrimination, policing and economic inequality.
“In order to heal, we can’t point fingers. We’ve got to own the history and figure out ways to move ahead,” Hamlin says. “These issues are timeless. Pay attention to what’s happening around us today. That gives you a glimpse into how this could have happened back then because it could happen again today, if we’re not careful.”
More information is available at motonmuseum.org.