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."
Aldrena's effort, and those of 60 or so others, is a reminder of how deep ran-- still runs -- the damage done by segregated schooling and the efforts of many leaders to preserve it. It is a reminder of how the suffering of that period, now forgotten by almost everyone who did not live through it, lingers in the souls and selves of people who had the misfortune to grow up during a time when the nation was trying to change its own character and, in places, failing. The alacrity with which mature adults came forward to seek money that would enable them to sit, once again, at a school desk, is a reminder of how crucially important education was to them as children, and how important it remains. It is a reminder, too, that there are still casualties from the civil rights era: people who did not lose their lives, but who lost something irreplaceable nonetheless.
Because, in truth, making up for what was lost during the nation's transition to integrated schooling is a lot to accomplish, even if you do have a scholarship.
THE SCENARIO: Dylan, a black lawyer, is in a hurry. He has just come from the gym. He has to fly to L.A. in a couple of days for work. It is a Sunday. Dylan needs to get into his office. He can't find, for the moment, the ID badge that will allow him into his firm's parking garage. In a car in front of him is another lawyer, Hope, a white woman. She inserts her card and drives through.
Before the gate closes, Dylan also drives through. Seeing this, Hope gets out of her car, approaches Dylan and demands to know why he is following her. Dylan tells her who he is -- he recognizes her; she doesn't recognize him -- and she goes back to her car. Dylan forgets about the encounter until he learns that Hope complained about him to their supervisor. In return, Dylan complains about her attitude, which he believes was motivated by racism.
What does the class think about this? Was race a factor? In Hope's response to Dylan? In Dylan's response to Hope?
Andrew Johnson, a professor who is teaching a course in business ethics to a group of Brown scholarship recipients, stands at the front of a classroom looking at the seven students sitting before him. Most, if not all, are older than he is. It's about 7:30 in the evening; the sun is going down, and the smell of mown grass permeates the air. Once a week, two professors are dispatched to Farmville by St. Paul's College, a small, historically black college 1 1/2 hours away in Lawrenceville, which has created a special program so that recipients living in the Farmville area -- many do -- won't have to commute for classes.
Waiting for an answer, Johnson looks at Carl Eggleston, a county politician and funeral home director, who was 8 years old when the schools closed in Prince Edward. Eggleston spent two years helping in his father's furniture repair business before his family rented a house in Cumberland County so that he and his siblings could take classes there. Johnson looks at Barbara Spring, who missed all five years, because she lived in a farm, and there were lots of chores ("you're never too young and never too short," the children were told), and everyone was needed. He looks at Henry Cabarrus, who at 14 was an incredibly promising student, so smart and ambitious that everybody knew he would be a doctor. During the first year of the closings, Henry worked the land owned by his grandfather, George Morton, an independent farmer who was injured and, for the first time in his life, at risk of going into debt. Henry's skills were such that not only did he run the farm well enough to turn a profit, but he completed and filed his grandparents' income tax return. The next year, he heard that the American Friends Service Committee--the Quakers--was sending Prince Edward students to live with families around the country. "I was just screaming to get the heck out of there," says Henry, who talked his reluctant grandparents into letting him go. At 16, he found himself sitting with a few classmates on a train to Yellow Springs, Ohio, and realizing that they did not know whether they could use the public bathroom. None of them had ever been outside a segregated system.
Henry, a wiry, energetic man now in his early 60s, is sitting on the edge of his seat, intently thinking about Hope and Dylan. The spot where the class is sitting is literally where everything started. Back in 1951, this modest brick building was the county's only high school for black children. Built in 1939 to accommodate 180 students, Robert Russa Moton High School had no gymnasium, no cafeteria, no science lab, no athletic field and not nearly enough room for the more than 440 students who ended up streaming in from homes and farms throughout the 353-square-mile county. "School was very important to me and my classmates; we didn't have a lot of other things to do, like kids do now," recalls another affected student, Rita Moseley. "We were very focused and eager to learn." To accommodate the overflow, a few ad-hoc structures were erected, built out of plywood and tar paper. The tar paper shacks had no plumbing -- in the United States, in 1951--and no heat except for wood stoves.
So stark was the contrast between the black high school and the one serving white students that in 1951, an outspoken 16-year-old named Barbara Johns organized a walkout to pressure the county to make good on its promise to build a better-equipped school for black children. When the county dithered and pled penury, the students sought help from the NAACP, which was embarking on a plan to desegregate schools throughout the nation. The NAACP decided to make the students' cause its own; rather than sue Prince Edward for a new black high school (which the county, as soon as it saw what was happening, scrambled to build), the NAACP sued for no more black high schools, period. And no more white high schools. NAACP lawyers joined the students' case to four other desegregation lawsuits, including one involving a Kansas student named Brown. And with that, Prince Edward became party to one of the nation's most transformative Supreme Court decisions, which, when it came down in 1954, was referred to as Brown v. Board of Education for the simple reason that alphabetically Brown comes before Davis, the name of the lead plaintiff in the Prince Edward case.
Of course, much of the South resisted the court's desegregation order; as the journalist Bob Smith points out in his book about Prince Edward, They Closed Their Schools, although many Southern states could barely afford a single school system, they were determined to keep running two. In Virginia, the resistance was particularly feverish: Year after year, state politicians came up with plans to thwart integration. The most notorious of these, "massive resistance," called for Virginia to respond to the federal order to integrate public schools by closing them down. A few counties did so (the Brown scholarship also applies to affected students, white and black, in those counties), but the state eventually backed down from such a radical and self-destructive maneuver.
All except for Prince Edward.
In Prince Edward, white resistance had been growing more organized and vocal since the walkout, and not only because Prince Edward was a poorer, rural county with a large black population, where many whites felt especially threatened by the prospect of black equality and economic competition. What really set Prince Edward apart was the racist pugilism of the editor of the local paper, a cigar-smoking businessman named J. Barrye Wall Sr., who used the editorial page of the Farmville Herald to share his view that the NAACP was in league with the Communist Party to destroy the fabric of American society through the integration of the races. Wall also used the news pages to raise funds for the private Prince Edward Academy, created to serve white students. It was a textbook case of the impact one determined person can have: Wall met little resistance from even progressive-minded white people, though some did exist.
The NAACP responded with a second lawsuit, asking the courts to decide whether a local government must provide public schooling. And it thus happened that the short-term needs of the Prince Edward black students were sacrificed to the unexpectedly long-term struggle to get this crucial question decided. As the case wound through the legal system, civil rights leaders came to Farmville to urge students to hold fast. "In your leisure, you can gather more in basic education than you would get in five years of Jim Crow schools," proclaimed Oliver Hill, a NAACP lawyer, optimistically. And when white community leaders offered to set up a private school for black children, the NAACP saw this for the trap it was. For the NAACP to prevail in court, it was necessary, ironically, that the black students' needs not be provided for.
Eventually this case -- Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County -- also reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that local jurisdictions must provide public schooling. "From Prince Edward comes the constitutional right of all the children in America for an education," points out the Herald's Ken Woodley, who grew up in Richmond, attended Hampden-Sydney College in Prince Edward and never heard a word about the school closures until he went to work at the paper. Learning of what happened, he says, he felt "numbness and shock." Woodley has modeled himself as the antithesis of J. Barrye Wall and has spearheaded the scholarship drive and aimed to show what one determined person can do to try to make things right. "Talk about a contribution to American history that is unknown -- that's what the black community in Prince Edward gave to this country."
Communitywide, there has been an attempt to recast the county's history, emphasizing its role in the civil rights struggle. In the 1990s, Woodley and others mounted a campaign to turn the old black high school into a historic building. Moton High has been converted into a museum, the anchor of the state's Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. In 2004, the county celebrated the 50th anniversary of Brown. Ceremonies have been held to award honorary high school diplomas to the adults shut out as schoolchildren. In 2003, when the General Assembly was considering a formal apology to the black students of Prince Edward, Woodley hatched his plan -- it came to him while driving to work -- to provide not only an apology, but also a concrete outlay of scholarship money. He saw it as reparations, and initially envisioned the money going to all the affected students and even to their children.
Some of those who eventually qualified after the legislative compromises are now sitting before Johnson, who also went to high school in Richmond, a few years after many of his students. "We never could figure out why the Prince Edward basketball players were so much bigger than we were," Johnson tells the class; now, he realizes that it's because the Prince Edward players were 20- and 21-year-olds, grown men returned to high school after a five-year-hiatus. Johnson also reflects on the impact the closings had on the county in discouraging industry from settling there. According to the 2005 census, Prince Edward has a median per capita income of $14,500, compared with $24,000 statewide, and the percentage of people living below the poverty level -- 18 percent -- is almost double the 10 percent figure statewide. "Who knows what might have happened if Farmville had been socially responsible?" Johnson says.
What's striking is the students' measured response to the Hope-Dylan imbroglio, which was assigned as outside reading. The class is part of an accelerated one-year-program St. Paul's created for Brown scholars who had some college credits already; students will graduate this May with a B.S. in business. In another classroom, more basic courses are being held for students who lacked any college credit and who will later be funneled into the business program. Like many adult students, they are motivated and engaged; in his written analysis, Henry Cabarrus decided that Hope and Dylan both used "tools of racial profiling" to model their responses to one another, and that the best policy, were he their supervisor, would be to get them together to talk.
Carl Eggleston has a different point of view. "I don't think it was racial," he says. "I just think she was an aggressive-type person."
The day before this class, Eggleston lost the mayoral election to a white incumbent. Years ago, he successfully sued the Farmville Town Council to abandon its at-large system of voting and make it more possible for blacks to be elected. Farmville has never had a black mayor. "We've made some progress, but not enough," Eggleston says.
Johnson continues to present scenarios meant to probe how racism may -- or may not -- be operating in the American workplace. "You go to a cocktail party, you're a junior associate. Your boss asks you to get him a drink: Do you do it?" says Johnson, adding, "This happens every day in corporate America."
"I would feel singled out in some way," Eggleston says this time. "I can't believe it's in my job description to go get alcohol for someone."
"I would get the drink," a woman replies, "but after that I would have to go back to my Scripture."
"I REMEMBER THE ONE TIME I saw my mama get mad at a white person," says Aldrena, trying to evoke for Mykhayla what life was like for her growing up. "One of the doctors examined me when my mother wasn't there, and it was, I guess, inappropriate. And when I was coming back out I told her, and my mom went back in there, and I never did know what she said to him."
Aldrena is navigating her Subaru through downtown Farmville, which has always been a small town. In Aldrena's youth, it was surrounded by more small farms than it is today. In addition to doing domestic work in a white neighborhood, Aldrena's mother worked her own property in Prospect, growing vegetables, raising animals, cooking huge meals on the wood stove in her kitchen. Aldrena's father was mostly away from home, working in Baltimore; because of the lack of economic opportunity in the area, it was not uncommon, particularly in black families, for one parent to seek better-paying work in a city.
Home, though, was here. And here, many African American children spent much of their time at the house or at school. Many parents didn't like to bring their children into town, where Aldrena is driving right now, because town was where the full force of inequality hit you. In town, everything was segregated: the movie theater, the churches, the hospital, where you had to walk, she remembers, down a dim corridor to the room where the doctor saw you. In town, the white neighborhoods had sidewalks and good street lighting, and the black neighborhoods didn't. In town, if you wanted to shop for clothing, you entered the department store through a side door, told a clerk what you wanted, and the clerk got it. Many parents did not want to subject their children to this, so they often kept them home, shielding them from a white world that seemed, to the children, foreign and frightening.
And before they did visit town, Aldrena remembers, their mother would share cautionary tales. Writing her papers has brought back one vivid memory of a black man who got arrested for stepping off a curb. "I don't know why they arrested him," she says, because her mother never told her, exactly, what law the man had violated. And that was the thing: Parents never gave an explanation; they simply told you how to behave and what to do.
"Call them Mr. and Mrs.," says her sister, Arlean Jones, sitting in the front seat with Aldrena, remembering what their mother used to tell them. "And they would call your mother 'aunt,' and your father 'uncle.' And sometimes, your parents would snatch you. They knew who the mean white people were, and if they saw one of them coming, they would snatch you away, and you wouldn't know why you were being snatched.
"When I think back over it," Arlean says, "they were scared to death of your saying something that would get yourself in trouble."
"Your self-esteem was shattered," is how Henry Cabarrus puts it, later, about the impact of these interactions. Henry, who was old enough during the closures to be aware of the rhetoric, recalls one white leader saying that he would rather his children be "baked in the oven" than sent to school with blacks. He remembers sitting around with his cousins, joking and wondering what it would feel like to be cooked. But the impact wasn't funny. "When you have such strong white resistance against you as a person, such that they take away the most fundamental thing -- education -- if someone can take that away from you, your esteem is so small that it is hard to be aggressive, hard to be outgoing. You're always looking over your shoulder for who is going to attack or criticize."
"You can't grow up with a lot of backbone," is how Aldrena puts it.
And while Aldrena clearly has backbone, the silence surrounding segregation had its effect. Because she was coached as a child to keep her mouth shut, because her mother did not want to discuss social inequalities, Aldrena internalized the idea that silence is the way to deal with adversity. And silence, for her, was enforced in other ways. When it became apparent that schools would stay closed for quite some time, Aldrena and two brothers were sent to Baltimore to stay with relatives. Her father had recently died, and her mother used his life insurance payment to send them. So Aldrena lived apart from her mother for most of her adolescence, the time in a girl's life when she most needs a mother to confide in. Her relatives had their own children to take care of and treated the newcomers with something less than affection. Aldrena knows that her mother sent money and food, good country food that the Prince Edward children craved and had grown up on -- ham and greens -- and that she never got any of it.
"Why didn't you?" asks Mykhayla, incredulous. "Who would eat it?"
"They would," explains Aldrena, who remembers being served hot dogs and pork and beans, day after day. And then Aldrena turns to Arlean, who is older, finished high school before the closings and left a few days after her own graduation to work in New York. She moved back recently to retire. "Do you think Mama knew how they treated us in Baltimore? Do you think she knew?" she asks. Then she answers her own question: "I think she knew, but she just wanted us to get some schooling."
And what else happened during that period? Aldrena doesn't remember the classes she took, the grades she got, the children she played with. After the schools reopened, she came back home to finish high school; there was a nominally integrated public high school then, though almost all white students stayed at the private academy. She attended a two-year business school in Washington and went to work for the federal government. She married, lived abroad -- her husband worked for the Navy -- raised two daughters, divorced. And, throughout, she thinks, the habit of silence affected every aspect of her life. "I didn't have the ability, if you will, to question or to speak out about anything that may have been bothering me. It was also the case in the workplace; if something I felt was unjustly done, I didn't bring it to anybody's attention. And I think also in my marriage, if something was bothering me, I would keep it internal."
She and her siblings never talked about the closings. Her older brother did not return to high school, and as a result, his literacy level prevents him from being appointed a supervisor at the factory in Appomattox where he works, at an age where he would very much like to have a desk job. Her younger brother moved to New Jersey and so does not qualify for the scholarships. The scholarships are "the stupidest thing I've ever heard of," says Arlean, because of the inequality they have reestablished, between those who suffered and qualify for state money, and those who suffered but don't.
Nevertheless, Aldrena has resolved to come to terms with the past; she also enrolled in an online course at Northern Virginia Community College, called Write Your Life Story. The instructor helped her find new strategies for recollection. "One thing she had us do was look at an old picture of ourselves," says Aldrena, who has only one photo from that period. It's a snapshot of her and her brothers, after they had returned from Baltimore and were getting ready to catch a bus that would take them, finally, back to school. "The instructor asked us to look at the faces, to see if they evoked anything, and I was looking at these pictures, and it was like nobody was really smiling. It was almost like a mystery, what feelings we were feeling standing there, getting ready for school. We weren't excited."
"THE SOCIAL WORLD REALLY SHUT DOWN," says Henry Cabarrus, sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Farm-ville. On a Thursday morning after his night class, Henry is talking about the impact the closings had on him and on the community he knew, which was profoundly affected by the exodus of children. "When I left Prince Edward County, there were all kinds of family events that took place, on the weekends in particular, but when I returned, through the years, on vacation, there were fewer clubs. The family tradition of family reunions had broken down, so that the social structure of the community was starting to fade."
What Henry has found is that segregation and the shame associated with the closings instilled -- in everybody -- a powerful disinclination to talk about what happened. And that has been a problem for him in completing his final project. For students in St. Paul's accelerated business course, the final assignment is to identify a need that exists in a local institution and come up with a plan, based on interviews, research and ingenuity, to address it. Henry decided that the Moton museum -- the old high school -- could use a multimedia exhibit. He's right: While the museum displays photos and offers a few commemorative items, the building is still old and creaky. Henry felt there should be a way for visitors to access the large but disparate archives of the Prince Edward closings: court decisions, newspaper coverage, speeches, videos, photographs. He also thought it would be nice to have oral histories: footage of former students talking. But when he approached people, those who used to be willing to talk were sick of doing so-- "people had just been talked to death" -- and those who hadn't wanted to talk still didn't want to. "I've run smack up against a brick wall," says Henry, who dropped the oral history idea but pressed ahead with the rest.
But then he was over at the Moton building sizing up the project and realized that the wiring could never support a multimedia exhibit, because this is, after all, the very ill-equipped building that led to the lawsuit that led to the closings that led to his longtime departure from the area that led to the scholarships.
For Henry, ultimately, there is no way to repair the damage done to his life, his education, his future. True, there were moments when he thought the Brown scholarship program really could make up for the impact the school closings had on him and his, at one time, unlimited academic prospects. As a young man, Henry did attempt to do what Oliver Hill urged: The first year of the closings, he tried to educate himself independently. "I thought at first I could just collect books and continue by myself, but that dried up real quick when I was doing all the farm work; I would come in, and I would be so tired." Then he was sent by the Quakers to Ohio.
After two years, the Ohio program was disbanded, and he was sent to Cambridge, Mass. Then the entire Quaker program was disbanded, when, in the final year of the closings, some local "free schools" were established: ad-hoc, everybody-passes classes to get students ready to go back to school proper. Realizing the free schools wouldn't give him the preparation he needed for college, Henry, then in his senior year of high school, bought a bus ticket back to Cambridge, put up posters asking for a place to stay and found a minister to take him in. He got a scholarship to Northeastern University, where he became involved in the civil rights movement. But when his scholarship money dried up and he became dissatisfied by the movement -- long story short -- he left school and moved to San Francisco, where, instead of becoming the doctor he always thought he'd be, he worked for years in residential group homes for the homeless and juveniles. His grandparents had died; his mother worked in New York. "I felt like I didn't have a home to come back to."
Henry returned to the Farmville area in the 1990s, when his aging mother needed somebody to bring her home from New York to a more restful environment. He works in a residential facility, taking care of the mentally retarded. Forty hours a week, afternoon to midnight, Henry, onetime future doctor, cleans the residents, bathes them, talks to them, plays cards with them, feeds them. Which is okay, too. Over the years, he feels, he has become well-trained to care for the mentally ill and other disadvantaged people. When he heard about the Brown scholarships, he thought here was a way to make everything come together. He applied to Longwood University, a state-funded institution in Farmville, hoping to complete a full, four-year degree in social work. He planned to change his schedule, to work at night and take daytime classes. "I felt I could pull together a good program," he says. So he applied and heard nothing for a while.
Eventually he received a letter from the president, recommending that he contact an admissions officer to discuss the possibility of first attending a community college. There was no guarantee of admission afterward. There is no community college in Farm-ville. The intent may have been good, but it felt, to Henry, like "a nice way of showing me the side door." When Ken Woodley, the Herald editor, heard about this, he says, he was angry. Martha Cook, a Longwood English professor, says, "I think he would have been an asset to us." According to Robert Chonko, dean of enrollment management at Longwood, it was thought that Henry needed "a little bit of refresher and some prerequisites" from a community college, because he "was lacking some background in some areas, and some of his areas were fairly dated." Longwood has accepted two Brown scholars. One died before matriculating. The other, according to Chonko, enrolled in an art program but only completed one year. The Brown scholarship pays for tuition but not fees, and Chonko points out that the art fees "can get pretty substantial." There are no Brown scholars currently at Longwood.
Thinking that it would be hard to commute to community college while working full time, Henry decided to enroll at St. Paul's. He will graduate in May with a business degree rather than the social work degree he wanted. As much as he appreciates what St. Paul's has done, he is aware of the disadvantages. "The instructors have been very supportive, but their contact with us is very limited," he says. He and his classmates lack easy access to St. Paul's campus and its online and library resources.
And so Henry has decided to devote himself to getting decent infrastructure for the Moton building. He'll use his final project to identify a funder and figure out what's needed. Who knows -- maybe he'll learn to be a grant writer. After all, he's only 62. Life is long. He has contacted someone at Colonial Williamsburg, to learn how to update a historical building. Finishing his coffee, he leaves to go to work, and get up tomorrow, and get started on bringing some good new wiring to that bad old building, so that the things he and his classmates lost, and the things they came to stand for, will always be remembered.
Liza Mundy is a contributing writer for the Magazine. She, Aldrena Thirkill and Henry Cabarrus will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.