There’s history here at the site of the 2016 Vice Presidential Debate that many of us have forgotten, if we ever knew it at all.
The modern civil rights movement was in many ways born here when J Samuel Williams, Jr. and about 450 of his classmates, led by the 16-year-old Barbara Johns, walked out of school and into history on April 23, 1951.
“To walk out, we felt proud. We felt we were doing something for ourselves. Something that needed to be done,” said Williams, sitting next to an old pot-bellied stove in the old Moton School, which has been turned into a museum.
In Farmville and across the South, African American students were crowded into decrepit, segregated schools and leaky tar paper shacks. Their books, their uniforms, their school buses were all hand-me-downs from the much better funded white schools. “There was no equality in much of anything,” said Williams.
“It really made you feel like you were a second class citizen,” said Joy Cabarrus Speakes, 77, of segregation. “That you weren’t deserving of what they were deserving of.”
The students went on strike, demanding a better school building. Lawyers from the NAACP took up their cause when the students agreed to demand more than a better building. They demanded integration with the separate white high school. And that demand became part of the Supreme Court Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1954 that, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”
“I really felt that meant we were going to get change. That it was going to get better,” said Cabarrus Speakes.
But it didn’t. At least not right away.
Instead of integrating its schools, Prince Edward County shut them down.
Supporters called it “Massive Resistance,” to the Supreme Court decision. Segregationists opened a private academy subsidized by the state for white students. Black students were left with nothing. The schools remained closed for five long years. Towards the end, when court decisions cut off the state subsidy for the private, white school, many low income white students were left with nowhere to go to class either.
“Five critical years of their lives, they suffered,” said Williams. “I felt like I’d been betrayed, mistreated,” said Cabarrus Speakes. “I can’t find words to express how I felt. That a community would go to the extreme of closing all public schools.”
It took federal intervention and another Supreme Court decision in 1964 to finally reopen the schools in Farmville. The people who fought for their rights say the lessons ring down through the ages to today.
“If you feel you’re being mistreated or something is going wrong in your community or your country, don’t sit back. You can make a change,” said Cabarrus Speakes.
And isn’t that what American democracy is all about?
We don’t know if either Senator Kaine nor Governor Pence will mention the struggles of the Farmville students in the debate. But Kaine got his start in Virginia as a civil rights lawyer. And he knows the story.