Then the Rev. Thomas Gafford, a black minister from California, came here four years ago to start a new church, he and his wife invited the Town Council to the dedication ceremonies. Not a single elected official showed; the mayor never even answered the invitation.
The Gaffords, new to Southside Virginia, were stunned. But the chilly reception by the town's all-white political leadership was no surprise to blacks who grew up here in the county seat of Prince Edward County, made famous a quarter-century ago by its last-ditch stand against desegregation.
"I have yet to talk to anyone in the black community who's gotten white political leaders in the town to come to a function," said Carl Eggleston, president of the local NAACP chapter. "They don't need us, so they don't bother. It's like they forget that blacks are even there."
Decades after Prince Edward County first was catapulted into national headlines, Farmville's white political establishment is once again under attack. This time, the battle lines have shifted from the schools to the voting booth, from the issue of integration to the issue of political power and the ability of a black minority to be heard in a community still split along racial lines.
On May 17, Eggleston, Gafford, three other plaintiffs and the local NAACP filed suit against the Town Council of Farmville and the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors to which the town elects three board members, all from a single, town-wide district.
The suit charges that both the town and the county's reliance on at-large, or town-wide, electoral systems has effectively kept blacks in Farmville--23 percent of the town's 6,067 residents--frozen out of the political process. In its place, the plaintiffs want to establish a system of wards, dividing the town into neighborhoods that would enhance the chances of black candidates.
Eggleston and the others contend that without political representation the voice of Farmville's black community has been stifled and its needs ignored or, at the least, given a low priority. The fact that white politicians don't come calling, he says, reflects their lack of concern.
Driving through town in the black Cadillac he uses in his mortician's business, Eggleston points out the invisible dividing lines that crisscross the community. Where Virginia Street meets Church Street, for instance, curbs and sidewalks disappear and the narrowed pavement gets bumpier. It is not coincidental, he says, that at that same junction, the neighborhood changes from white to black.
Other traces of the county's segregated past still linger. The public swimming pool, closed in the 1960s to avoid integration, never reopened. Until recently, the town still funded separate libraries, one in the basement of a black church and the other in the bottom of the Hotel Wayanoke, used by whites. Efforts to establish a regional integrated library are only just now getting under way.
"Anything they do, if they can maintain it separate, they'll do it," Eggleston says of the town leaders.
Since the suit was filed, members of the Town Council and the Board of Supervisors, which have hired separate Richmond law firms, have declined comment on the issues involved. But Town Manager Gerald Spates disputed the conclusion that the black community gets less in the way of town services. Few residential areas in town have sidewalks, he noted; those that exist were put in decades ago.
"As far as the town discriminating, I think that is unfounded," Spates said.
What the suit seeks on behalf of Farmville's black residents is a textbook case of political relief. As in other voting rights suits filed throughout the South since the 1960s, the plaintiffs here want to split the town into separate electoral districts or wards, of which at least one would likely be majority black. Without a ward system, they contend that a black from Farmville is unlikely to be elected to either the seven-member council or the county Board of Supervisors.
Once in the '60s and twice in recent years, blacks have run for at-large council seats in Farmville but each time they've lost, supported almost exclusively by the some 450 votes generated by the black community.
The suit also seeks to break up a three-member district that represents Farmville on the county board and from which only one black, James Ghee, president of the state NAACP, has ever been elected. Ghee served only half of a four-year term and lost a reelection bid in 1981 after the county switched to staggered terms. The suit charges that staggered terms, sought by conservative leaders in the county, has also served to dilute black voting strength.
The Farmville suit is the second filed in Virginia recently challenging electoral systems that require candidates to run at large. The first, brought against the City of Hopewell, resulted in the city's decision last January to elect five of its seven council members by wards.
With the reenactment and toughening of the Voting Rights Act by Congress last year, civil rights groups say there will be more such lawsuits--in Virginia, where 33 of 41 municipalities have at-large electoral systems, and in other states. According to civil rights attorneys, a critical change was the provision that plaintiffs no longer have to prove that electoral schemes were adopted with the "intent" to discriminate, only that they have had that "effect."
By bringing a suit in Farmville, civil rights group are tapping a rich historical vein of racial segregation that made Prince Edward County a key battleground in the struggle for civil rights in the South. In 1951, the NAACP went to court to desegregate the county's schools after a group of black students went on strike, protesting the tar-paper shacks set up to relieve overcrowding in their "separate but equal" high school.
The Prince Edward case became one of five ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark school desegregation opinion in 1954. By 1959, faced with the inevitability of integration, the county again made news when it closed its public schools and established a private academy for white students.
Eggleston, now 32, was in second grade when the schools closed for five years. His parents had to pay $150 a month to rent a house in nearby Cumberland County so he could get a public education. Those memories still live with Eggleston, who three years ago petitioned the state Historical Commission for a marker at the site where the black students walked out of the classroom back in 1951. (Town officials, who were not consulted about the marker, weren't there at the unveiling, notes Eggleston.)
Some things have changed in Farmville since the schools reopened in 1964. Ely Street, which runs through a black community, has been broadened and renamed Griffin Boulevard, after the Rev. L. Francis Griffin, the Baptist minister who led the black community during the tumultuous '60s. A black-owned radio station has gone on the air, supplementing the conservative views found in the Farmville Herald, once a militant force in the battle against integration.
Two blacks serve on the eight-member Board of Supervisors, elected from the single-member districts out in the county. (Only the Farmville district has three members.) The county school board also has two black members.
For politicians who run countywide where blacks number 38 percent of the population, there is a growing recognition of the importance of black support. Seven of the 20 employes in the county sheriff's office are black, a record that helps win Sheriff Gene Southall friends in black communities and which his opponents in next month's three-way primary are careful not to criticize. "Now that I've broken the ice, no politician can go back and say they'll do anything less," Southall, 42, noted.
Yet, the county and the town are still divided in ways that time has not healed. Despite a growing trend by whites to return to the public schools (now 27 percent white), a majority on the Town Council are members of the conservative old guard and staunch supporters of the all-white Prince Edward Academy; only one, the only woman on the council, sends her children to the county schools. When the county board votes on the school budget, it splits along predictable lines, with a minority composed of two blacks and a white college professor backing increased spending on public education.
Lack of support for the public schools was one of the issues that propelled Thomas Gafford and his wife, Kay, into community activism and eventually into joining Eggleston in the voting rights lawsuit.
Both Gafford and Eggleston say that many in the black community, particularly in Farmville, are reluctant to speak out for fear that they could lose their jobs or face other repercussions.
"People here don't want you to say anything about anything," said Gafford, a pastor in the Church of God in Christ.
"To me, it's like the '50s and '60s. It's hard to believe it's still like this."