February 2020

On the Outside, Looking In

Farmville school was a civil rights wellspring

Rita Odom was screaming. But she didn’t want anyone to hear. At the house of a stranger 150 miles from home, tears welled in the 12-year-old’s eyes as she 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 she could not 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 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 that students referred to as 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. Lawyer Oliver Hill and others 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 and parents were plaintiffs in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward. As it advanced through the courts, the litigation was combined with lawsuits from three states and the District of Columbia 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.

THE LOST GENERATION

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, forever known as the Lost Generation of Prince Edward.

“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,” Townsend notes.

Johns experienced death threats and a cross burning on school grounds. By 1959, she was in Philadelphia, where she would become a librarian. 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 suppress 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 went back 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 public 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.”

REMEMBERING HISTORY

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 1990s, when a group of citizens raised $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 open the once-padlocked 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 Fuqua Academy, the white-only school that 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 so than become a member of that board?’”

Through determination and a strategic partnership with nearby Longwood University, 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 address topics such as education, housing and economic inequality.

“The issues are timeless,” Hamlin says. “In order to heal, we can’t point fingers. We’ve got to own the history and figure out ways to move ahead.” 

One School, Four Counties

For black youths, Carver was the only hope

It was the longest weekend of Lawrence Hutcherson’s life. On a Friday afternoon nearly 60 years ago, a guidance counselor inspecting records figured out that Hutcherson and a friend had bluffed their way into George Washington Carver Regional High School after flunking out of a Culpeper County primary school.

Since it was May, near the end of the school year, the counselor solicited the input of Principal Harvey Fleshman as to whether Hutcherson could continue at the lone black high school in a four-county region, his only opportunity at secondary education.

Through the weekend, Hutcherson was a nervous wreck. He knew his future was at stake. On Monday, Fleshman announced his decision. The school was to blame for failing to catch the ruse. The youths could stay.

“I would have ended up on a farm somewhere. That would have been life for me,” says Hutcherson, now a Baptist minister. “Once I got to Carver, I realized how important education was. It was just like a light came on and I was determined, no matter what it took.”

At the height of Virginia’s dogged insistence on school segregation, Carver was a beacon of hope and opportunity.

More than 400 students from a sprawling 1,300-square-mile area rode buses for hours to mix in a way they couldn’t do in public facilities.

“It was a very difficult and ugly time, but this institution and others like it spoke to the creativity of people who still very much knew the value of education and the difference it was going to make,” says Hortense Hinton-Jackson, who came to Carver in 1962, setting up her career in higher education in Virginia.

Located on U.S. 15 near Culpeper, Carver operated from 1948 until 1968. Thanks to the work of its alumni association, the Carver 4-County Museum, located on the first floor of the two-story building, salutes memories of a state championship football team, science fairs, band competitions and the determination to get ahead.

“There were no local options available,” explains museum curator Terry L. Miller. “Your children were not able to earn a high school diploma. So this place had a rich meaning for the students who could say, ‘Gee whiz, I am going to big Carver High School where at least 400 students will be in that building when I walk in.’”

BUILDING BLOCKS

Locals advocated for years to build the school, which came to fruition when a local farmer sold 11.5 acres for $10 to the school boards of Rappahannock, Culpeper, Madison and Orange counties. Carver opened on Oct. 7, 1948, with 452 students and 18 teachers.

From the beginning, it was unique, and not just because it enrolled students from across Virginia’s Piedmont. Teachers from out of the area lived in specially constructed housing on the property, contributing to a sense of community.

The quality of the education was top notch and the school was a haven for pupils. But the presiding doctrine of “separate but equal” educational facilities still grated on students like Charles Jameson, a 1965 Carver graduate and past alumni association president.

“This is where I knew I had to come. It didn’t make any difference what you had, who you had, it was the color of your skin. And it’s sad to say,” Jameson notes.

“We just didn’t want to go through what our parents went through,” says Hutcherson, adding that his mother had no opportunity to go to high school. “We grew up in the Jim Crow era. When you grow up in the South, you sort of adapt to it. That was the way life was.”

The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, declaring in 1954 that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal, was headline news across the country but did little to interrupt day-to-day life at Carver or in Virginia.

“It meant absolutely nothing,” Miller says. “Virginia dug in its heels against integration for a long time. But that did not change the way the teachers taught and it did not change the way the students interacted with one another here in the school.”

And that is the clue to Carver’s success. Teachers and administrators made a difference for potential dropouts like Hutcherson, who went from an uninvited guest to a fine student and a cog on offense and defense for the 1963 Virginia Interscholastic Association football state champions.

“All we wanted was an opportunity. We didn’t want to be ahead of anybody or over anybody. We wanted level ground. Carver gave us that,” he says.

RECLAIMING CARVER

Culpeper County school started integrating, slowly, in the 1960s. By the end of the 1967-68 school year, Carver had fewer than 15 students and eventually became a vocational school, among other uses.

The museum has been a slow-moving dream, under consideration for more than 15 years. In 2016, Culpeper County agreed that the Carver alumni association could repurpose the former school library as a showplace that focuses on the stories of its students and how they fit into the larger narrative of their times. The grand opening in February 2019 was a moving experience.

Charles Johnson of Orange was a member of the first graduating class in 1949, unbeknown to his son Alan, who reached out and ran his finger across his dad’s name on an exhibit of former Carver students.

“That’s something I did not know beforehand because he never talked a lot about his youth,” says Alan Johnson, who has gotten involved with Carver history. “Sometimes in those days people had hard lives. They didn’t talk about the past.”

The museum’s first exhibit, entitled Origins, explored the founding of the school; another display acknowledged Carver athletics, including the championship football team and the celebrated women’s basketball team.

In February, the museum is planning a traveling exhibit on the vote, featuring the first voting rolls of African Americans in the four counties, with a women’s history exhibit to follow in March.

Overseeing the displays is a 16-foot-long mural of life at Carver and the community painted by artist J. Hubert Jackson of Culpeper, who attended from 1956 to 1961.

“We don’t yet have a permanent exhibit because we have so much information that we can do two fresh exhibits every year for the next five years,” Miller says. The museum plans more traveling exhibits, oral histories and partnerships with local organizations to keep the Carver tale alive.

“We grew up here,” says Hinton-Jackson. “You came here at 12 and 13 and left as young adults. So it was a very significant time frame in your life and it helped shape you in many ways.” 

Segregation to Preservation

Northern Neck school made a big difference  

It had already been a long day when Herbert Gaskins drove the “cracker box,” a wooden frame transit bus designed like a child’s toy, to school bus stops in Westmoreland County on Virginia’s Northern Neck.

He’d been up since 3:30 a.m., milking cattle by hand and tending to chores at the family farm near Kinsale before assuming the role of bus driver.

It would be an even longer day, too, because after Gaskins pulled into the Armstead Tasker Johnson High School lot, he would attend classes, drop off the kids on the second leg of a 60-mile roundtrip, perform more farm work and stuff his studies into whatever time was left.

For 50 cents a day. At 15 years old. And no, Gaskins did not have a driver’s license.

“That was an experience,” Gaskins recalls with a chuckle. “After a couple weeks of school, we got halfway home and the driver tells me to drive the rest of the way. That went on for two or three weeks and I’ll never forget the next morning, he came up and said, ‘You think you can handle it by yourself?’”

Handle it by yourself. Self-reliance. Enterprise. Do what needs to be done. It was the story of Herbert Gaskins and the cracker box, and it was the story of A.T. Johnson High School and the museum on school grounds just outside of Montross.

“I am always in awe when I walk through these doors,” says Marian Veney Ashton, class of 1968 and director of the museum. “I honestly hear voices from the past saying this is a dream come true. What we do here is to try to make sure people don’t forget that dream.”

TO BUILD A SCHOOL

Before 1937, seventh grade was the end of the road for just about all black students in Westmoreland County. A church school went to the ninth grade, while some students moved elsewhere to secure a secondary education unattainable at home.

Most of them, though, went to work in the farming communities of the Northern Neck.

“You didn’t have much of an option,” explains Lois Harrison-Jones, an A.T. Johnson alumnus. “I think education has always been a thirst that African Americans have had. But it was denied to them and I think that things you’ve been denied, you wish for even more passionately.”

The school was the essence of a community project. In 1935, after a decade of fits, starts and lobbying by Johnson, a prominent educator, Westmoreland County agreed to support construction of an African American school for eighth grade and beyond.

The New Deal-era Works Progress Administration helped with funding, but so did ordinary citizens, scraping up their share of the $22,800 in construction costs.

Edna Crabbe, an A.T. Johnson student, remembers visiting the proposed site on annual May Days, when community members would sell chicken sandwiches and other items to raise money.

“Most of the work that was done toward the school was done by the community. So that’s why they felt so proud of the building,” she says. “We are so proud today because of their efforts back in 1935 and 1936.”

The one-story building with a U-shaped footprint required considerable sweat equity. Students at a nearby boys’ academy set up a sawmill on site, cleared the land and turned trees on the property into hardwood floors that endure today. They used sand from the site for bricks and mortar.

When it opened in 1937, A.T. Johnson High School lacked indoor plumbing for its 30-40 students. But some 60 years later, student Bernice Carter Hill of the class of 1937 still could joyfully recall her emotions in a recollection to the school alumni association.

“I remember that the excitement was more than we could bear,” she wrote. “Then came the glorious day when the school opened, most of us had never seen anything like it. We didn’t have all of the textbooks we needed, but there was no lack of love and excitement.”

BALANCING CHALLENGE AND OPPORTUNITY

It’s not like Gaskins was the only student-driver. Harrison-Jones has had a distinguished career as the first African American superintendent of schools in two states, serving in Richmond, Va., and Boston, Mass. She also is professor emeritus at the Howard University School of Education.

In 1946, though, she was a 12-year-old girl from the community of Sandy Point, overlooking the Potomac River, graduating from a two-room school to A.T. Johnson, about 18 miles away. On her first day, she missed the bus.

So she drove herself.

“Here, almost everybody drove to get around,” she explains. “I didn’t want to miss it.”

Even with A.T. Johnson opening its doors, traces of inequity abounded. Harrison-Jones recalls the ordeal of children who lived near the Potomac River and had to walk three or four miles in winter to get to a bus stop.

“I recall very vividly how they were almost frozen and many times, even after they had walked and ran, they missed the bus,” she says. “We always knew that the schools were different and that there were different facilities. Naturally you resented that. The difference was that I never felt that they had a superior education.”

Therein lies the secret of the school, which remained the black high school in the county through 1970 when it became an integrated junior high. The faculty was outstanding and set high standards for students.

For example, you couldn’t graduate without giving an oration, sans notes, on stage in front of the student body. Harrison-Jones still remembers her subject from 1950 — “Opportunities and Respon-sibilities of Youth in the Atomic Age,” correctly foreseeing the rise of the microwave and driverless vehicles.

“We were segregated. It was certainly not equal. But the teachers made up the difference,” she says.

In addition to the main structure, students learned in a home economics cottage while an industrial arts building gave rise to Gaskins’ eventual career as an engineer.

“For four years out here, I was the main welder,” Gaskins says, noting that he and friends converted metal parts into a motor scooter. “People would bring their farm equipment here and we would fix things that would break.”

Ashton says that’s an example of the comprehensive education that students received from a faculty that numbered about 20 by 1969.

“I think every teacher left us with the impression, ‘Let no one tell you who you are. You know who you are and you know what you could accomplish,’” she says. “I think every student that left this area went out in the world just thinking, ‘I can do it.’”

SAVING HISTORY

The junior high operated until June 1998. Westmoreland County was prepared to turn A.T. Johnson into a parking lot and storage facility. The home economics and industrial buildings already had been torn down when the school’s alumni jumped in and earned a historic landmark designation.

The museum officially opened in 2000 and continues to add displays, exhibits and artifacts regularly, as well as hosting schoolchildren to teach them about how much their ancestors valued education. From the home economics era, the museum boasts as complete a set of vintage irons as one is likely to find.

“I think we all felt that we did not want to see our foreparents’ dream turned into a parking lot,” Ashton says. “Should this disappear, there would not be any one thing in this county that collectively had been built by the African American community. And it was totally because of the tenacity of the African American community that this school exists.” 