FARMVILLE, Va. — When Joan Johns Cobbs was 13, her older sister, Barbara, took an incredible risk. Fed up with shabby conditions at their all-black high school, Barbara Johns led the students on a walkout to demand better education.
It was 1951, and the resulting court case became one of the pillars of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation nationwide. Farmville and Prince Edward County responded harshly, shutting down the public school system for five years, from 1959 to 1964, rather than letting whites and blacks attend together.
Today, much has changed. There is a statue of Barbara Johns, who died in 1991, on the grounds of the state Capitol in Richmond. Her former high school is now a civil rights museum. And on Tuesday, Farmville’s Longwood University will host the only vice-presidential debate of this year’s election, in part because of its ties to the desegregation fight.
“I was thinking about Barbara and how she would be so shocked at what’s happened since that time,” said Cobbs, 78.
Shocked in ways good and bad.
Across the nation, race has flared again as a dominant political issue. From Black Lives Matter and violence between police and people of color to campus demonstrations, neighborhood riots and the rise of white supremacists in mainstream politics, this has been a tense and divisive campaign season.
When America focuses on Farmville this week, it will find a town that has struggled more than most to come to grips with race. It hasn’t always worked. Though the county is 64 percent white, the public schools are only about 37 percent white. Many white students still attend the private school that opened after desegregation.
But some believe there is a lesson in the effort made by town leaders and the university to confront the worst aspects of the past.
Farmville is “the scene of where leadership has been forged in reconciliation,” Longwood President Taylor Reveley IV said. “That is a powerful concept for the country today as we are wrestling with issues that are very familiar from the past, especially from the civil rights movement.”
On a warm fall day, it’s hard to envision the ugly chapters in Farmville’s history. Flags, bunting and banners announcing Tuesday’s debate line Main Street. Longwood is sprucing up the stately grounds of Virginia’s third-oldest public university. At the other end of town, the Green Front — a furniture retail complex known throughout central Virginia — keeps most of the old storefronts full and vibrant.
It’s not that the town is trying to hide its warts. Above the courthouse, the bell tower shines with a light dedicated in 2008 to Barbara Johns and her fellow students “with sorrow for closing schools,” as it says on a metal historical marker out front. “We grieve for the way . . . lives were forever changed, for the pain that was caused, and for how those locked doors shuttered opportunities and barricaded the dreams our children had for their own lifetimes; and for all wounds known and unknown.”
The former Robert Russo Moton High School, where black students once learned in cold tar-paper shacks out back, now has a bright annex styled after one of those shacks for special events at the museum, which tells the students’ story.
And pushed by former Farmville Herald editor Ken Woodley, Virginia’s General Assembly established the Brown Scholarships in 2004 to fund education for residents who were kept out of schools during the shutdown in Prince Edward and other parts of the state.
“I think something can be said for the progress Prince Edward has made,” said Woodley, 59, who is white and spent years writing editorials to repudiate the racist legacy of his newspaper.
The public gestures only go so far, he acknowledged. The county covered up its past for too long. The scholarships should have been offered when the victims were still young. But there has been real change. City government, for instance, is racially balanced now.
“Prince Edward County is America in microcosm,” Woodley said. “It’s not perfect at all, but if Prince Edward can get to this point, then there’s hope.”
The vice-presidential debate has created another opportunity for residents to take stock. But there is also some anxiety about the national spotlight peering into Farmville at such a tumultuous time.
“My mom is convinced we shouldn’t go to work that day because there might be some sort of terrorist event,” Carlie Copal, 29, said, laughing as she sat outside the Uptown Coffee Cafe on Main Street. Copal, who is white, doesn’t believe there will be any problems.
“Racial tensions are weird here,” she said. “When I went to high school, I don’t feel like it mattered. For people our parents’ age or older, it’s still a thing. I think I’m willing to say it might be dying out.”
Cainan Townsend, 22, wouldn’t go quite that far. His father had no schooling until age 11 or 12 because of the shutdown. Growing up, Townsend, who is black, spent a lot of time memorizing math tables while other kids played outside. He realized only later that it was because his father was making sure his son suffered no such disadvantage.
Now Townsend is surrounded by that legacy every day in his job as education director at the Moton museum. It leads him to question things. Why do adult illiteracy and educational disparities, for example, continue to exist in a university town?
“Segregation is still a thing. It just looks different now,” Townsend said.
He’ll help host a citizenship summit for high school students leading up to the debate. The museum and Longwood will also sponsor a “free speech zone” on the athletic field behind Moton — the spot where Barbara Johns and the students voted to go on strike, and where Stokely Carmichael addressed a rally organized by the multiracial Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966.
“It’s a place where people can have their voices heard in an organized way,” said Larissa Fergeson, a Longwood professor who serves as interim executive director of the museum.
A half-mile down Main Street from Moton, the Farmville Republican Victory Center was bustling with volunteers on a recent morning.
One of them, Mary F. Jones, was still fuming about an encounter earlier that day at exercise class, where a woman had admonished her for supporting Donald Trump.
As an African American wearing a big Trump button, Jones, 64, knows she’s going to get grief from people. She’s been confronted at the grocery store and even at a civil rights breakfast.
“People get angry because they figure black people are a group that all do the same,” Jones said, meaning vote for Democrats. “That’s not true. I think for myself.”
Jones doesn’t care what Donald Trump thinks of her, she said, only that he seems friendly to Christians and promises to reduce regulations and create jobs. The past doesn’t matter when you’re worried about getting by, she said.
Prince Edward County has tended to vote Democratic in presidential elections, a bit of an oddity in an otherwise red, rural part of the state. And its civil rights legacy could create a favorable stage Tuesday for former Virginia governor Tim Kaine (D) in his debate against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R).
Kaine’s wife, after all, is Anne Holton — daughter of former governor Linwood Holton, who is widely admired for integrating Richmond’s schools in the early 1970s. Pence has been criticized by civil rights groups for not doing enough to support women, minorities and the LGBT community.
Not everyone remembers Kaine’s connection to integration, though. And there are few — if any — Clinton/Kaine signs visible around town. Entering Prince Edward County on state Route 307, the county sign is flanked by a debate banner and a big Trump/Pence sign, and more line the way into town.
Corey Stewart, Trump’s campaign chairman in Virginia, insists Farmville’s legacy will have no bearing on the debate. “I think people are overthinking that,” Stewart said. “When people have jobs, they’re happy, they have hope. Then a lot of the social issues we have in this country tend to work themselves out.”
But maybe there’s a chance that one community’s efforts to bridge its own divides can have some small impact during a time of strife.
“My hope is that the Prince Edward story leaves with both men, then infuses their presidential running mates,” Woodley said. “That it changes the national dialogue on race relations, on where we go from here.”
Joan Johns Cobbs will be there to see, attending the debate along with other members of her family. Although she left Farmville after graduating in 1955 and now lives in New Jersey, Cobbs lately has been impressed by what’s happened in her home town.
“I feel like things have changed some. I wouldn’t say a lot, but there has been some progress,” she said. “I’m thinking of moving back.”