Making Up for Lost Time

By Liza Mundy
Sunday, November 5, 2006

On a sunny Wednesday toward the end of summer, Aldrena Thirkill, a compact woman with a quiet but friendly air, was sitting in a booth at the Shoney's on the main road running into Farmville, Va., eating lunch with her sister and her granddaughter when all at once the past materialized beside her, holding a plate of food. It took the form of a girl -- well, a grown woman now -- Aldrena had known long ago, who, spotting Aldrena from the buffet table, had come over to say hello. The two had grown up in the countryside around Prospect, a community about 10 miles outside of town, on the other side of Farmville from where they were sitting now.

Saying an amiable hello in return, Aldrena remembered only that the woman's last name had been Mitchell, and that she and Aldrena had gone to school together in the 1950s. They had attended classes at First Rock Elementary, a small, segregated school for black children built in a clearing along the road that runs between Prospect and Farmville, both of which are in Prince Edward County, in the agricultural, south-central region of Virginia known as Southside. At that time, the First Rock building, which still exists -- it's a diner now-- had no plumbing and no electricity, and it was heated by a wood stove so inadequate that students sitting in back rows had to wear coats in winter.

Aldrena and the Mitchell girl had been a grade apart until suddenly they weren't a grade apart anymore, because suddenly they weren't in school at all anymore. The public schools in Prince Edward closed in the fall of 1959, in an extreme act of defiance to the U.S. Supreme Court order, in Brown v. Board of Education, to integrate. A private school for white children was hastily built, but black children were shut out for a period that stretched for five full years. Aldrena -- living on a farm with no television or telephone, raised by a mother who had no car and who had to catch a ride into town to do domestic work -- had lost touch with the Mitchell girl. Lost touch with, really, everybody outside her family. The world as she knew it had simply, one day, vanished.

And now this grown-up, onetime neighbor, standing at the table beside her, told Aldrena what had become of her after schools in Prince Edward were shuttered. She had moved North to attend school there, part of a quiet but steady diaspora of children who left the county to seek education elsewhere. She returned when the schools finally did reopen, but later moved back North. Like Aldrena, who lives in Dale City, she was only in Farmville for a visit. Then the former Mitchell girl went to eat before her food got cold, and Aldrena turned to Mykhayla, her granddaughter, who that day was 10, going on 11, almost exactly the age Aldrena had been when her life was irrevocably changed. Mykhayla is a beautiful girl, tall and slender, with tawny eyes that glow with sunlight and intelligence; she attends a magnet school for academically motivated children in Dale City; she loves history; she loves visiting Farmville and especially the old family property in Prospect; and she is acutely interested in what went on in her grandmother's life 47 years ago, during the upheaval of the civil rights movement.

"So you see," Aldrena said to Mykhayla -- the encounter made vivid a point she had been trying to explain -- "we didn't know what happened to anybody."

MORE THAN THAT: Aldrena Thirkill doesn't know what happened to her. As an adult, she can remember surprisingly little of her life between 1959 -- when the schools closed, with bitter fanfare and flamboyantly racist rhetoric -- and 1964, when the county was grudgingly compelled to reopen public schools on an integrated basis. Five years of her life: lost. And so, Aldrena has begun to try to reconstruct what happened -- to her personality, her education, her family -- during this traumatic period of her early youth. She has done so not just by talking to Mykhayla, but also by writing, over and over, in academic paper after academic paper, what she can remember, hoping that with each new writing exercise, some forgotten fragment -- a scene, a person, a conversation -- will be unearthed. At 58, when many retired adults are taking up golf or gardening, she is taking English composition classes at Marymount University in Arlington, sitting beside classmates so young that segregation, to them, might as well be the Revolutionary War.

She is by no means alone in her effort. In the fall of 2005, Virginia began issuing academic scholarships to repair even a small portion of the harm done to at least 2,000 African American schoolchildren who suffered a particularly acute form of deprivation during the hard-fought transition to integrated schooling. The fund, known as the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Program, is an attempt to atone for the damage that Prince Edward -- with profound complicity from the state itself -- inflicted upon its most vulnerable citizens. The program pays the costs of a GED program or high school diploma for those who found jobs during the closings and may never have returned to school at all; it also pays for community college or an undergraduate or master's degree, up to $7,200 a year.

"It's difficult to start your life over when you are 58 years old, but we are never too old to learn and be filled with knowledge and wonder," says Ken Woodley, 49, editor of the Farmville Herald and the chief architect of the plan. "There are people who see it as an opportunity to get a better job or go into business for themselves. I really believe that if someone discovers one author, one painter, their lives are enriched, and they are able to experience more of what life has to offer."

Or at least some of them can: Woodley's vision has been whittled down by a more bottom-line-minded General Assembly, which awarded $1 million to create a scholarship pool, a sum that was matched by the philanthropist John Kluge. During negotiations, lawmakers decided that, in fact, pure-life betterment was not a legitimate use of taxpayer money; to qualify for a Brown scholarship, students must be enrolled in a degree program or a course that will directly affect their job prospects. Moreover, the legislature decided that the scholarships will be awarded only to people who are living in Virginia and attending Virginia schools; the state did not want to be paying Virginia money to schools in, say, New Jersey. The significant portion of people who permanently left the county do not qualify. Even so, when the plan was being debated, Woodley recalls, skeptics predicted hardly anybody would come forward. Instead, more than 200 people have inquired. Of these, about 60 have applied, qualified and enrolled in courses. They are adults well past middle life, anxious to pursue the opportunities denied them a half-century earlier, a lack that for many has been a terrible shame all of their lives, though they are the last people who have anything to be ashamed of.

"I didn't want anybody to know that I didn't go to school during that time; I was ashamed to talk about it," says Aldrena, who is making a forcible effort to talk about it now. For her, the scholarship program is an opportunity to regain her voice, literally, and thereby undo some of what segregation did to her. Looking back, she feels that one of the chief effects segregation had on her, psychologically, was to instill in her a feeling that the best response to almost any situation is no response at all. She can pinpoint when her silence started: It was in the spring of 1959, when her teacher first warned her and her classmates, sitting in that chilly building, that schools might be closed in the fall. She went home hoping her mother might explain, but her mother -- like many adults at the time -- predicted that the schools would surely stay open. It was widely thought that the leaders of Prince Edward would not go that far. Then, when the leaders did go that far, Aldrena remembers her mother, now deceased, being unwilling to share the full reason for the closing.

"We were kind of hoping she would be able to explain," Aldrena remembers. But her mother didn't. "I think I know why now," she says. "That was her form of employment. She worked for them. She wouldn't say anything negative.

"That was how adults dealt with things back then; they didn't talk about it," says Aldrena, who feels she internalized the same lesson, but hopes the scholarship can help her change this aspect of her character. "I have come to a place in my life where my voice is no longer silent," she wrote last year, in a course called Fundamentals of Writing. "The teacher who announced that the schools would be closed in September of 1959 was the vehicle that activated my years of silence. The instructor provided no explanation for the school closing, and I did not understand why this was happening. Furthermore, the lack of information I received from my Mother caused even more turmoil and a sense of low self-worth."

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