For decades, the shameful years known as "massive resistance" were buried so deep in Aldrena P. Thirkill's subconscious that they simply vanished from her memory.
Now, the memories of that time -- when authorities in southern Virginia boarded up schools to avoid desegregating them -- are rushing back so fast that Thirkill can hardly sleep at night.
"The more I talk about it, the more I remember," said Thirkill, 57, now living in Dale City in Prince William County. Paraphrasing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she added, "We begin to die when we stop speaking."
Thirkill is one of the first 60 Virginians to receive scholarships of up to $5,500 under the state's new Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship program, named for the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that brought the segregation of schools to an end.
In reality, many southern jurisdictions defied the ruling by shutting down public schools and opening all-white private academies, forcing black students to drop out or move away to continue their education. Eventually, the high court forced those areas to reopen the schools, a feat in some cases accomplished only with the help of the National Guard.
The Virginia legislature established the $2 million scholarship fund last year, the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision, with a $1 million donation from a Virginia philanthropist and the vocal support of the Farmville Herald newspaper, which during desegregation had been staunchly behind the "massive resistance" movement.
In 2003, Ken Woodley, now the Herald's editor in chief, conceived of the scholarship to atone for the newspaper's past position.
"I think this is a moment of redemption for the commonwealth," Woodley said. "It shows we can grow toward one another and we can heal the wounds of our past."
For Thirkill, though, redemption may be too strong a word.
Thirkill and her four siblings were raised by their mother, a headstrong woman who maintained the 20-acre family farm at dusk and dawn and worked as a maid the rest of the day. Their father was absent much of the time, toiling at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Baltimore to support the family.
She remembers the day in 1959 when teachers announced that her Farmville area school, a rickety clapboard building filled with run-down desks and secondhand textbooks, would be closed for good. Some of her classmates cheered, she said. Others started crying, realizing that the education denied to many of their parents, who came of age during the segregated Jim Crow era, was now out of their reach, too.
Determined that her children would graduate from high school, Thirkill's mother sent her and her two school-age brothers to Baltimore to live with an uncle and attend school there. Thirkill remembers those years with some pain. Meals consisted mainly of oatmeal, hotdogs and beans, she said, and at school she and her brothers were mercilessly teased as country bumpkins. Homesick for her mother, she was able to visit her only a few times.
But she remembers little else from those days, her recollection still a haze of confusion and emotions.
"You have to understand, life ended when the schools closed. At that time, people used to say you don't tell people where you come from. This is a subject you are not supposed to talk about," she said. "Back then, nobody talked to kids about what was going on. It's a scary thing when you're torn from your life that way."
Three years later, Farmville's schools reopened and Thirkill was able to return. But bathrooms, restaurants and other public facilities were still segregated. What's more, most white families kept their children in the private academies. That year, there was only one white student at the high school, Thirkill said.
Charles Pryor, Thirkill's younger brother, was raw with anger upon his return.
"I just wanted to get back at people for what they'd taken away from me," he said. "I really understood then what they thought of me, that I was some thing that didn't even deserve to be sat next to."
While Thirkill kept her head down and spent two years in business school, Pryor was demonstrating in the streets, elbowing his way into whites-only establishments and once finding himself in jail.
Over time, Pryor said, his anger subsided. Today, the 56-year-old is a plant manager for the U.S. Postal Service in New Jersey. Both his children have master's degrees.
He notes that his education never went beyond high school but that he is not eligible for the scholarship because he lives out of state.
"I feel that they put in a loophole, something to keep them from paying out all the money," Pryor said.
Thirkill, too, said the scholarship is a "nice gesture" but believes it won't change her life or anyone else's. Many of her former classmates work and would not take time off to go to school, she said. Some have died. All are middle-aged and older, and most, she guesses, would have preferred to pass the money on to their children.
Woodley said he plans to propose that the scholarships be extended to recipients' children and grandchildren, who he believes suffer from the legacy of those lost school years. But state Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III (D-Richmond) said the program was never meant as compensation.
"We're really trying to take care of those individuals who had a really rough time," said Lambert, who pushed for the scholarships along with Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). "The problem is basically solved. It's not a reparations type of deal. It's a deal for those who don't have an education."
Thirkill plans to use her scholarship to study creative writing at a local university, though she is not sure whether she will pursue a bachelor's degree. Her goal is to put her life story on paper -- if not to publish as a book, then at least to pass it on to her 9-year-old granddaughter.
She hopes her writing will persuade her former classmates to speak out, too.
"My main thing is to maybe, hopefully, provide a voice for people who didn't have a voice, to tell them it's okay to express your feelings," she said. "It wasn't their fault, and it's okay for them to talk about it."