Massive Persistence

<p>Susan Phillips</p>
August 21, 2005


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Historical marker outside of the Robert Russa Moton High School.

August 10 marked the start of the 2005-2006 school year at Prince Edward County High School in Farmville, Virginia. School secretary Rita Moseley was there helping things run smoothly, as she has been for the past 20 years. But this year is different, because in September, Moseley will go back to school herself as a recipient of a scholarship for individuals who, like Moseley, saw their school days disrupted by the campaign known as massive resistance.

Though Moseley graduated from Prince Edward High, her graduation came two years late, after four years of exile from her hometown schools. In 1959, Prince Edward County decided to shut down its public school system, rather than desegregate the schools. The schools remained closed until 1964, with white students attending all-white academies financed through state tax credits.

The shutdown cost Moseley dearly. For two years, she didn't go to school. Finally, she was sent to live with two elderly women, strangers to the family, to attend school. She returned in 1963 when privately-funded free schools were opened for the area's black students. Moseley was able to finish up her education when the schools re-opened in 1964.

A Massive Resistance Timeline

Though Prince Edward schools stayed closed the longest, Front Royal, Charlottesville and Norfolk also closed their schools during massive resistance. The Brown v. Board scholarships are for individuals affected by the closings.

Moseley will be taking weekend and evening courses from St. Paul's College. "I'm going to be studying business management," said Moseley recently. "I hope to eventually manage my own business, doing printing and graphic design. I also would like to write a book about the story of Prince Edward County."

Learn more about the Moton School's place in history

From Apology to Action

It's a nice touch that Moseley's classes will be held in the former Moton school building. Moton was the black high school in Farmville before desegregation. A 1951 student strike protesting conditions at the school was pivotal in the legal struggle to end segregated schooling in the United States, and the school is now a museum.

A driving force behind the scholarship program has been Ken Woodley, editor of the Farmville Herald. Woodley remembers driving to work one February morning in 2003. "The Virginia General Assembly was debating a resolution expressing its profound regret for the closing of schools in Prince Edward County (during massive resistance)...At the same time, the Prince Edward County school board was beginning to talk about awarding honorary high school diplomas to students who were locked out," says Woodley. That was the light bulb moment, according to Woodley.

"If there is goodness and healing in giving someone an honorary diploma, and I think there is, at the end of the day, that's still just a piece of paper that hasn't empowered anyone to do anything," Woodley says. "By the time I got to work, the whole thing was really clear in my head."

Woodley's idea was that the state would foot the bill for individuals affected by the school closings to continue their educations. It might mean a GED program for those who never finished high school, technical or career training, or an associate's or bachelor's degree.

By lunchtime of that day in February, Woodley says, he had commitments from Virginia state Sen. Benjamin Lambert and Del. Viola Baskerville to bring the idea up in the assembly. By March, he was talking to the office of Gov. Mark Warner. The law creating the scholarships was passed in 2004, with funds coming both from the state and from a $1 million gift from Charlottesville philanthropist John Kluge.

"It's these men and women who should get all the credit," says Woodley. "Think of the strength and spirit, the tenacity, of saying 'Yes, we're going to do this.'"

Did You Say Tenacity?

Mary Johnson is trying to give a phone interview, but her call waiting keeps beeping. She excuses herself to take the call, and is back on the line in a few seconds. "That was my great-grandson, he wants to come over—I knew it was someone persistent, so I thought it was probably family."

Johnson, 59, knows persistence. A resident of Virginia Beach who struggles with diabetes and recently underwent major surgery, Johnson is overflowing with enthusiasm about her college plans.

"I have spoken with the dean of students at Tidewater Community College," says Johnson. "I did explain that I wouldn't be ready for the fall, because of the surgery, and me still not having my strength up, but that I would be ready for January."

Johnson grew up in Norfolk, where the massive resistance campaign shuttered schools, but for a shorter period of time than in Prince Edward County—less than a year. "Not a long time," says Johnson. "But it seems like a long time when you are being barred from something."

Johnson was in 7th grade at the time. "We didn't go to school,' she remembers. "Our churches helped us along with our studies, but it wasn't school." When schools re-opened, she attended until dropping out in her senior year due to pregnancy.

She hopes to get an associate's degree from Tidewater, then transfer to Norfolk State. She is looking ahead to a career in human services. "I have good communication skills, I connect with people and I can get things moving. I would like to get into counseling, and be a help to others."

Her family—daughters aged 42, 40 and 39, two grandkids and that one persistent great-grandson—are so happy. "And my granddaughter, when I mention Norfolk State, her eyes just buckle. Because that's where she's going in the fall...How about that?"

Yvonne Evans of Burkville also understands tenacity. After missing four years of school, she moved to New Jersey, and found herself as a 15-year-old 5th grader. "All the other kids were little...They'd say, 'Look at her, how big she is, she's old enough to quit school.' But I didn't pay attention. I knew what I wanted to do." Evans spent only two months in fifth grade, then a few months more in 6th. Eventually, she graduated from high school at age 20.

Since then, Evans has attended college off and on while working a number of jobs, and is partway to a bachelor's degree. She hopes to finish her degree and go into youth work. "I want to try to stop some of these young people from going to jail."

Opportunity and Anxiety

Carl Eggleston, the owner of two funeral homes in Prince Edward County, is president of the Moton Museum board. And, like Moseley, he'll be starting college classes this September in a Moton classroom as a recipient of one of the scholarships.

"My plan is to get a degree in business administration," says Eggleston, who graduated from high school a year late, but went on to earn an associates degree and obtain a mortuary license. "I was one of the lucky ones, to a certain degree," says Eggleston. "Some people never finished at all, they are still trying to complete some kind of formal education...I thought I'd take the opportunity."

So far, about 80 scholarship awards have been made, according to Brenda Edwards of Virginia's division of legislative services, which administers the scholarship program. Woodley says that an additional 20 or more applications are pending, and that there will be another round of applications next year.

But it's not easy to go back to the classroom in late middle age.

For recipients in Prince Edward County, St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville has stepped up to the plate by offering to run evening and weekend classes at the Moton Museum. "They will custom tailor curricula for individuals," says Woodley. "It is just astonishing."

Aldrena Thirkill of Dale City in Northern Virginia has had her scholarship approved. But she is nervous about going back to school. "My youngest daughter is in nursing school. She said to me, 'Mom, you know, it's a lot of work. You're not going to get instant gratification.' It's very scary," says Thirkill. "I still work full time. I have to do it in the evenings and weekends."

Thirkill wants to study creative writing, and has applied to Marymount College.

While Thirkill and two siblings graduated from high school despite their interrupted schooling, one brother never did. She hopes that her example might encourage him. "I'm sort of hoping that by going to college, I can challenge him, push him a little to do something. Maybe if I can do it, he might try."

Remembrance, Repayment

Woodley sees the determination of people like Thirkill as an illustration of the importance of education, and the seriousness of what children lost through massive resistance. "People talk about reparations," says Woodley. "A lot of people are afraid of that word, but reparations means simply 'repair the harm.' That is what this is an attempt to do."

Like Moseley, Thirkill hopes that her scholarship will give her the tools to share her experiences with future generations. "My granddaughter, she's 9 now, and she's interested in my history," says Thirkill. "I want to write her my history, so she will have that. And I want to write about my experience with the schools closing."

Johnson acknowledges the historical nature of the scholarships—but recognizes that this is also repayment, in part, of a personal debt. "Yes, I know it's not about me, it's about Brown v. Board," says Johnson with a laugh. "But please, I say, just give me my little bit of—what was it, 40 acres and a mule? That's it, I'm getting my little bit."


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Comments

great story!

I hope Aldrena does the course and writes her history. Best wishes to all of you from Norfolk, England.

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