By Brendan Wolfe
On the morning of April 23, 1951, students at the Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville walked out of their classes. Their complaint: the county’s black schools were grossly inferior to its white ones. “We want a new school or none at all,” they proclaimed on placards. And “Down with tar-paper shacks!” The resulting court case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1954 that public-school segregation was unconstitutional. Rather than comply, the state of Virginia actually shut down some of its public schools.
The Moton strike was one of the singular events in twentieth-century Virginia history, setting off a chain of events that seem almost impossible to believe sixty years later. And yet most histories of the civil rights movement place Selma and Birmingham front and center, not Prince Edward County. For this reason, perhaps, VFH sees it as an especially important part of its mission to tell this story.
How, then, might Virginians use VFH to learn this story?
Well, you can start with Encyclopedia Virginia (EV), a free online history of the commonwealth. Its entry on the Moton school strike, penned by former VFH board member Ron Heinemann, introduces you to Barbara Rose Johns, who organized the walkout. Sixteen years old and the niece of the firebrand preacher Vernon Johns, she provided the charismatic leadership necessary for organizing her fellow students. The entry also lets you listen in on an emotional community meeting in which Johns squared off with the Moton school principal, J. B. Pervall, who argued for equality but also for segregation. There are images of the school’s conditions, pictures of picketing students, and a portrait of Barbara Johns. Finally, the entry provides a clear accounting of all that happened next: the court case Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward; the subsequent Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education; and the response by Virginia’s government to close many public schools rather than integrate them.
Encyclopedia Virginia allows its readers to follow their noses. Want to know more about public-school desegregation in Virginia? Click on the link. Same with Massive Resistance, the strategy devised by white politicians, such as Harry F. Byrd Sr. and J. Lindsay Almond Jr., to thwart the Supreme Court. And did you ever wonder about Robert Russa Moton, the school’s namesake? The encyclopedia has his remarkable life covered, too.
So Encyclopedia Virginia is a good place to start. But it represents only one way that VFH has found to tell the Moton story. In “Strike,” an episode broadcast on January 14, 2012, the award-winning VFH radio program With Good Reason interviews two of the students who actually participated in the Moton strike way back in 1951: the Reverend Samuel Williams and Joy Cabarrus Speakes.
In a conversation with Lacy Ward Jr., a current member of the VFH board and the director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Williams and Speakes recall that fateful day.
Ward: What did Barbara [Johns] do and tell me, were you surprised by it?
Speakes: I was very surprised by it. We were shocked because that day when we were called to the auditorium for assembly, we thought that it was just the principal calling us in. But when we got into the auditorium, all of us, and the curtain opened, there was Barbara Johns along with the others, Carrie Stokes, John Stokes, and others that were on the committee.
Ward: And Reverend Williams, you were there that day, too.
Williams: Yes, I was there, and there was a lot of cheering, there was a lot of listening, there was some booing, and so forth …
There’s nothing quite like hearing what it was like to actually be there, in the moment that history is made. As this fascinating conversation continues, Speakes explains how a tragic school bus accident, which occurred a month before the walkout, helped inform Barbara Johns’s activism.
In the same episode, Larissa Smith Fergeson provides additional historical background. A professor of history at Longwood University in Farmville, Smith Fergeson coedited Encyclopedia Virginia‘s twentieth-century history section and is currently writing entries on two of the lawyers who pursued the students’ legal action: Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood W. Robinson III.
Smith Fergeson has been studying the civil rights movement in Virginia for much of her academic career. As senior academic advisor, she oversaw the creation of an exhibit about the Moton strike and Prince Edward school closings that opened April 29, 2013, at the Moton Museum in Farmville. (With Good Reason talked to Ward, the museum’s director, in “The Making of a Civil Rights Museum,” broadcast in 2009.) Grants from VFH helped fund that exhibit, which opens with a short documentary film shown in the same auditorium where surprised students, cheering and booing, gathered that morning of April 23, 1951.
If there’s nothing quite like hearing what it’s like to be there, well, then what about actually being there?
In August, staff members at VFH toured the museum, walking the old school’s halls and thinking about what it means to tell stories like the Moton strikes—stories of events that once bitterly divided communities like Farmville and that continue to haunt us all with their complexities.
In a conversation with David Bearinger, VFH’s director of community programs, Lacy Ward related the difficulties of establishing the museum in a town that continues to struggle with how to tell, and who should tell, its own story. And Smith Fergeson pointed to a portrait of Barbara Johns hanging in the old auditorium. It’s actually a portrait of the young woman who played Barbara Johns in the documentary, she told a staff member.
What does that mean?
Perhaps only that the story of the Moton school strike doesn’t necessarily get easier with time. Time complicates everything, and VFH’s mission shouldn’t be to definitively answer all the questions that still surround events like this, such as what Moton and Barbara Johns represent to a state and a nation still at odds over race. Instead, through its various programs and community connections, VFH offers Virginians a unique opportunity to engage their history and, best of all, to answer the important questions for themselves.