Virginia’s third-oldest public university, once seen as an indifferent bystander to racial discrimination at its doorstep, has pledged to support a museum that commemorates a key battleground of the civil rights movement.
The recently signed covenant of affiliation between Longwood University and the Robert Russa Moton Museum underscores the role of Prince Edward County in the nation’s school desegregation fight of the 1950s and 1960s. That history still resonates a half century later as America grapples anew with questions about civil rights.
The museum, in Farmville, is based on the site of a crucial, catalytic event of the civil rights era: a daring student walkout in 1951 to protest intolerable conditions at an all-black high school. Among the student grievances were temporary classrooms, with leaky roofs and potbelly stoves, known as “tar paper shacks.” A lawsuit filed after that strike became part of Brown v. Board of Education; in that landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.
Longwood, then an all-white women’s college, was founded in antebellum Virginia in a town on the Appomattox River west of Richmond. As a neighbor of Moton High, it witnessed the upheaval in Prince Edward in the mid-20th century, when local officials resisted desegregation orders. County schools were shut down from 1959 to 1964 in a confrontation that did not end until another Supreme Court ruling.
Last year, a half century after the school shutdown ended, Longwood’s governing board approved a statement of “profound regret” for the school’s actions during the civil rights era. The statement was one of the most far-reaching of its kind as a growing number of colleges and universities in recent years have come to terms with their roles in the nation’s tragic racial history.
It 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.”
Under the terms of the covenant, signed on June 30, university and museum leaders pledged that the museum’s goals in perpetuity would be to “share the story of the Moton strike and imprint it more deeply on the national consciousness”; to advance public understanding of the history of the civil rights struggle; and to advance the cause of civil rights in education.
The two institutions also pledged to “work together through affiliation to ensure adequate funding for the obligations and operation of the Museum and to ensure general administrative support for the Museum of the nature customary and expected throughout the University’s system of departments, divisions and independent affiliates.”
Translation: The museum will remain an independent entity, but Longwood will provide support as needed.
University President W. Taylor Reveley IV estimated that the expense to Longwood would total no more than a few hundred thousand dollars in the first two years. Reveley said this week he envisions the partnership will draw more students, faculty and alumni into the museum’s activities, deepening historical scholarship at the school. Longwood, now a coeducational and diverse public university with about 5,000 students, is known for undergraduate programs in education, human services, business, economics and arts and sciences.
This month Longwood also announced a “Moton Legacy” scholarship to promote the cause of equal educational opportunity, naming student Chrischel Rolack as the first recipient, covering tuition and fees for her senior year. Rolack, in a university news release, described her impressions when she first visited the museum and learned the story of the Moton strike and what followed.
“I was shocked,” Rolack said. “Shocked that I had never learned about this before. After the introductory video ended, I sat there thinking two things: How could this be, and how can I just be learning this now? The incredible courage of those students and the school closings is heartbreaking but also affirming. It proves that education is everything, and it underscores my desire to be a teacher.”
Museum and university officials said they would make the museum more accessible to the public by dropping all admission fees, which had been as high as $7 for regular adult visitors.
It took months of meetings to draft the covenant. Participants emphasized that the university is not taking over the museum.
“We feel it’s a win-win situation for the university and for the museum,” said Joy Cabarrus Speakes, a member of the museum’s board of trustees, who participated in the 1951 walkout when she was 12 years old. “It takes the museum into generations to come. It ensures that it will be there, and the story will continue to get out nationally and worldwide.”
In a related development, the Prince Edward school board also is taking steps to honor those who fought for civil rights.
On Sept. 12, school officials will hold a ceremony to name the Prince Edward High School auditorium after Barbara Rose Johns, the student who led the Moton High walkout on April 23, 1951. A middle school gymnasium will be named for the late Rev. L. Francis Griffin, a civil rights leader, and a school board room will be named for a longtime superintendent, James M. Anderson Jr., who in the 1970s helped integrate the county school system.
Russell L. Dove, the school board chairman, said he marveled at what Johns accomplished.
“A 16-year-old,” he said. “For her to have the courage and the organizational skill to pull that off was remarkable…. Not only did it impact Prince Edward, it impacted schools all over the nation.”
In the early 21st century, in a nation led by its first African American president, civil rights issues are flaring in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, Cleveland, Baltimore and elsewhere. Dove said that means the history in Prince Edward is all the more worth re-telling.