With Help, Va. History Gets Better
By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; Page B01
Lacy Ward Sr. knows how to bring the history of Prince Edward County to life. He's a natural storyteller and captivates a listener with facts not widely known.
"Let me give you a tidbit," he said recently. "In the souvenir booklet that commemorated the 200th anniversary of Prince Edward County in 1954, I didn't recognize the name of one black person. No pictures of a black person in the whole book."
Ward, a 73-year-old cattle farmer who lives in Prospect, delights in telling that tidbit, in part because he is now chairman of Prince Edward's 250th anniversary observance. "I said I will not preside over anything that ignores the role of African Americans in Prince Edward," Ward said.
And he has been true to his word.
On Friday, Ward will help inaugurate Virginia's Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail -- which runs through 13 counties and includes 41 sites so far. The theme of the trail is the struggle for equal education in America, not only for African Americans but women and Native Americans as well.
The inaugural ceremony begins at 2 p.m. at the Robert R. Moton Museum, in the former Moton High School, at Griffin Boulevard and South Main Street in Farmville.
Ward and his son, Lacy Jr., are members of the Old Dominion Resource Conservation and Redevelopment Council, which initiated the project.
Along the trail, in Buckingham County, is a one-room schoolhouse once used by black children. It marks the humble beginnings of what would become a decades-long struggle for equal educational opportunities in the state. Also in Buckingham is a monument marking the birthplace of Carter G. Woodson, the historian and Howard University professor known as the "Father of Black History." Woodson dedicated his life to education, which he knew was the key to freedom.
The Moton Museum anchors the heritage trail. On April 23, 1951, students at all-black Moton High School staged a walkout that set in motion one of the most dramatic struggles against separate and unequal education in America. The protest was organized by 16-year-old Barbara Johns. It eventually led to a lawsuit, Davis v. Prince Edward County, which became part of the famous Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
"In 250 years of Prince Edward history, the Robert R. Moton story is the greatest part," Ward said. "The students were amazing, especially Barbara. First, she manages to get the principal to leave the school, then she calls a full student body meeting and put her plan into action.
"There were quite a few skirmishes. Teachers got fired. The principal got fired. Once the students staged their walkout, they couldn't assemble on public property. So the Rev. L. Francis Griffin opened the doors to the First Baptist Church to them. The next thing you know, his credit was being denied. There was great hardship."
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Virginia responded with a campaign of "massive resistance," in which public schools were closed and private schools were opened for whites only. Beginning in 1959, Prince Edward resisted for more than four years, among the longest holdouts in the state. In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that Prince Edward's refusal to fund public schools was unconstitutional.
From the founding of Prince Edward in 1754 to the Supreme Court ruling against school desegregation in 1954 to the 250th and 50th anniversary celebrations in 2004 of the county's founding and the Brown decision, the county has come a long way. And Ward said he is privileged to be part of this confluence of historical celebrations.
At the same time, he added, much work remains to be done.
Last year, the Virginia General Assembly approved a resolution expressing "profound regret" over Prince Edward's opposition to school integration. Lacy feels that Prince Edward should do the same. As a member of the county's Board of Supervisors, he proposed a similar resolution. But those who felt the board had nothing to apologize for carried the day, and Ward's resolution failed.
"I'll just keep trying," Ward said. "Isn't that what our history teaches -- persistence, perseverance? If a 16-year-old girl named Barbara didn't give up, then why should I?"
© 2004 The Washington Post Company