FARMVILLE, Va. — For 13 years, a public college for white women in central Virginia witnessed a monumental battle of the civil rights era unfolding at its doorstep. Many here think Longwood College during that time failed to stand for what was right.
Longwood’s leadership in the 21st century fervently agrees — and it is racing to make amends.
In 1951, hundreds of African American students walked out of this town’s all-black high school to protest dismal conditions. Their electrifying strike played directly into the Supreme Court’s ruling three years later that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.
Then, from 1959 to 1964, Prince Edward County public schools were shut down as local officials resisted desegregation orders. One of the closed schools, Farmville Elementary, sat next to the core of Longwood’s campus.
As a bystander to history, Longwood emerged with a stained reputation. African Americans who lived through the traumatic events recall the college offering little or no support. “No, none that I know of,” said Dorothy L. Holcomb, 65, who was 10 in 1959. “All I knew was that I was completely shut out of the schools.” She was forced to go to a makeshift church school and later to a public school in nearby Appomattox County.
In September, a half-century after the Prince Edward schools reopened, the governing board of what is now Longwood University unanimously approved a statement of “profound regret” for the institution’s actions in that era and apologies “to those who have been hurt.” Today, Longwood has 5,000 students, men and women of many racial and ethnic backgrounds.
With this move, Longwood joined other universities that have acknowledged their roles in the nation’s painful racial history. Brown University scholars in 2006 issued a report on how that school benefited from the slave trade. The University of Virginia expressed regret in 2007 for its use of slaves in the 19th century. Washington and Lee University’s president said last year that the school’s ownership of slaves before the Civil War was “a regrettable chapter in our history.”
What sets the Longwood statement apart is the contrition for actions and inactions in a divisive — and far more recent — period.
The university said that “while many individual members of the Longwood community spoke and acted bravely in support of the inarguable principle of equal protection under the law and educational opportunity for all, as an institution Longwood failed to stand up publicly for these ideals, resulting in support to those who opposed desegregation, and falling short in its duty to provide strong moral leadership in the community.”
The university — at the heart of a small town about halfway between Richmond and Lynchburg — also said it regretted using eminent domain during that time for campus expansion in ways that caused “lasting offense and pain to our community.”
The statement came as “quite a shock,” said the Rev. J. Samuel Williams Jr., 81, a Baptist minister who was one of the 1951 student strikers at Robert Russa Moton High School. “Something that was long overdue.”
Williams said that when he was growing up here, black residents viewed Longwood as a place that was “totally off limits unless you were an employee in a menial position.”
In tandem with the statement, Longwood officials are forming a partnership with a civil rights museum inside the old Moton schoolhouse that tells the entire 13-year story. The university will give financial and logistical support to the Moton Museum, which lies on the southern edge of the campus. Although there is no firm cost estimate, university President W. Taylor Reveley IV said he figures the expense would total no more than a few hundred thousand dollars in the first two years. The university also plans a Moton Legacy scholarship to promote the cause of equal educational opportunity.
Reveley, 40, who became president in 2013, helped to engineer the statement and the partnership. He said reconciling the university with its past will help it move forward in the future. He noted that this town of about 8,000 people on the Appomattox River is not far from where the Civil War ended 150 years ago. Longwood, which traces its founding to 1839, witnessed that drama, too. With direct links to the Civil War and the civil rights era, he said, the university can make a name for itself as a center for scholarship on those subjects.
“There’s a real opportunity here to help Longwood benefit from the history all around it,” Reveley said. “We’re helping our students learn how to become citizen leaders.”
Reveley’s namesake grandfather was president of nearby private Hampden-Sydney College during part of the school-closure period. W. Taylor Reveley II, a Presbyterian minister, was a strong supporter of racial integration, the younger Reveley said. In 1964, the elder Reveley welcomed to the campus U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was a vehement critic of the school closures.
Longwood’s president at the time, Francis Greenfield Lankford Jr., did not invite Kennedy to visit, Reveley said. “That kind of goes in the category of sins of omission,” Reveley said.
Several African American community members here who are active in the museum spoke with The Washington Post about Longwood and the local civil rights struggle. Their accounts come as the nation is considering civil rights from multiple perspectives, through the film “Selma,” which depicts the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for a voting rights law, and the ongoing debate about police using deadly force against African Americans in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.
Joy Cabarrus Speakes, 76, said she was 12 years old and in eighth grade when she participated in the Moton student strike on April 23, 1951. Organized by 16-year-old Barbara Johns, the protest called attention to overcrowding at Moton High and the lack of basic facilities such as a cafeteria and gymnasium. Temporary classrooms, with leaky roofs and potbelly stoves, were known as “tar paper shacks.”
Attorneys for the NAACP took up the cause in a federal lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board. Speakes was a plaintiff. The Supreme Court combined that suit with others in the case that became known as Brown v. Board of Education. In its landmark 1954 ruling, the court declared that the “separate but equal” doctrine used to justify racial segregation had no place in public education.
Speakes, a trustee of the museum, said she hopes the Longwood partnership will enhance its profile. “We will be able to get the story out nationally,” she said. “It really is a win-win.”
Edwilda Gustava Allen, 77, another 1951 student striker, said she inquired at Longwood in the mid-1950s about applying to the college but was advised to apply instead to one of Virginia’s historically black colleges. Allen said she appreciated Reveley’s recent actions. “It was very nice of him to apologize,” she said. “We’ve lived through it.”
It took another Supreme Court ruling, in 1964, to force Prince Edward County to reopen its public schools. Longwood did not admit its first African American student until Barbara Botts attended the school in 1966, said Larissa Smith Fergeson, a history professor who is Longwood’s liaison to the museum. Its first African American graduate was N.H. “Cookie” Scott, who received a bachelor’s degree in 1972.
Now about 8 percent of Longwood’s students are black, a slightly larger share than at the University of Virginia and about equal to that of the College of William and Mary. Ten of Longwood’s 304 faculty members are African American.
The university has grappled with racial history before. In 2004, then-President Patricia Picard Cormier lamented Longwood’s silence during the school closures. The university, she said in a speech, “sinned by omission and commission.” She speculated that the silence might have been because of “veiled threats,” or “the culture and customs of the time,” or pressure from Richmond.
Colleen Margiloff, 39, graduated from Longwood in 1997. Margiloff said that as a white student, it took her a while to perceive the tension between the town’s African American community and Longwood. “It was just in the air,” she said. “Something was off.” In 2013, Margiloff joined the governing Board of Visitors. She now leads it in the position of rector.
Margiloff, a former schoolteacher, said the board’s Sept. 13 resolution was a necessary step. She cited Longwood’s tradition as a teachers college.
“We have an obligation to teach our children, regardless of race or religion or sex,” she said. “It’s the essence of being a teacher.” By not speaking out against the school closures, she said, “it felt like we had been a part of this violation.”
Cainan Townsend, 21, an African American from Farmville, is a senior at Longwood majoring in liberal studies. Two of his great-aunts, he recently learned, were plaintiffs in the Davis case. Townsend is a student volunteer at the Moton Museum. He said the university’s efforts at reconciliation are “very good for the town and for Longwood. It definitely was a mark of progression.”