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Why Farmville, Virginia — the location of the VP debate — matters

A technician works on the TV media platform for the U.S. vice-presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia October 2, 2016. LREUTERS/Rick Wilking
The TV media platform for the U.S. vice-presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia October 2, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

All eyes will be on the small town of Farmville, Virginia, on Tuesday evening as Tim Kaine, a Democratic senator from Virginia, and Mike Pence, the Republican governor of Indiana, face off in the first and only vice presidential debate this election season at Longwood University.

Located in Prince Edward County, Farmville is often referred to as the “Heart of Virginia” because of its central geographic location. With a population of just over 8,000, Farmville is probably best-known for furniture shopping at Green Front Furniture where customers can peruse stacks of Oriental rugs and unique furnishings from all over the world in old tobacco warehouses and former factories.

A two-college town, Farmville is home to Longwood University, the state’s third-oldest public institution founded in 1839, and nearby Hampden-Sydney College, one of just a few all-male colleges left in the US.

Part of the reason Longwood landed its first-ever debate has to do with the area’s significant role in American history.

The final episodes of the Civil War unfolded in and around Farmville. General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at nearby Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.

And it’s only a few steps south of Longwood’s campus that a big part of the Civil Rights Movement was born. In 1951, students at an all-black school in Farmville walked out amid deplorable conditions — paving the way for the Supreme Court to outlaw school segregation.

But the public schools in the county shut down rather than educate black students.

This event and the healing process that ensued can teach the rest of the nation a lesson as racial tensions remain high across the US this election season.

“I would think that the message Farmville could send to the nation is, ‘Look at where we are now. Look at where we have come from. We are in a much better place now. And we are continuing to get better,” said Robert Hamlin, a 73-year-old who was denied an education when the public schools in Prince Edward County closed for five years because the all-white leaders refused to desegregate them.

“I really think that much like American democracy, racial reconciliation is a practice, something we have to work at — all of us on a continual basis,” said Dr. Larissa Fergeson, a professor of African-American history at Longwood.

She added: “I think Farmville now works on that project in an intentional way.”

The students walk out

On April 23, 1951, a bold 16-year-old student named Barbara R. Johns at Robert Russa Moton High School called for a secret meeting in the school’s auditorium. There, she organized and led a student walk-out to protest the vastly inferior conditions at the all-black public school.

The exterior of Moton High School (credit: National Archives)
The exterior of Moton High School (Source: National Archives)

Moton High School, a single-story brick building constructed in 1939, was originally intended to hold 180 students. By 1951, 477 students had to endure overcrowded conditions. Instead of a new building, the county school board built tar paper shacks with no indoor plumbing, leaky roofs, and the only heat coming from a potbelly stove. Moton High School also didn’t have a cafeteria or a gymnasium. There wasn’t a proper science lab, either. Instead, students shared one microscope. The students were also given hand-me-down books with missing pages.

Rev. J. Samuel Williams, Jr., now 82, was in 11th grade when the strike happened. Williams, a former football player and track runner, remembers Barbara Johns as a “very serious” student and an “incredibly brave” person.

“We were after a new school,” Rev. Williams said. “We were determined not to return to school until the Board of Supervisors had met our demands. That was our demand.”

The students went on strike for two weeks. While their mission was to get a new school, they ultimately ended up igniting an even larger movement.

The auditorium at Moton High School (source: National Archives)
The auditorium at Moton High School (Source: National Archives)

“Barbara Johns, at age 16, stood up when most children were being told to ‘sit down and shut up.’ And particularly being black in this part of the country during that time, that was a very dangerous thing to do… and very brave. She decided it was important enough to take a stance. I’m sure she didn’t have a sense of what that moment really meant. She just knew she had to do it,” said Hamlin, who was 9 years old and attending elementary school out in the county at the time.

To stay informed, the students and their families would meet at First Baptist Church where they were led by Rev. L Francis Griffin who was also the local chapter president of the NAACP.

“Griffin was different. He was not the traditional preacher who conducted service in a regular contemporary church. He stepped outside of the church and dealt with people in the street,” Rev. Williams said. “Griffin was a motivator. He was a Christian socialist, that’s what he was. And he was our leader. He gave us a new understanding of Jesus as a radical revolutionary personality, that’s who he is. He taught us that. He was a great teacher and a great preacher, a fighting preacher.”

A month after the student strike, two lawyers from the NAACP — Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson — filed a lawsuit on behalf of the students and their parents that would ultimately end segregation in US public schools. The case — Dorothy Davis et. al v. School Board of Prince Edward County — was eventually bundled with four other cases as part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. That case resulted in the end of “separate but equal.”

School’s closed

Following the 1954 Brown decision, Sen. Harry Byrd (D-Va.) pushed for a policy of “massive resistance” against racial desegregation.

By 1959, the white leaders for Prince Edward County’s Board of Supervisors closed the public schools for the next five years rather than desegregate. An all-white private school was opened. Poor white children couldn’t afford the tuition. There wasn’t an all-black private school.

Rev. Griffin would eventually file a lawsuit against the Prince Edward County School Board. The US Supreme Court would rule in May 1964 that the decision to close the public schools was unconstitutional.

Hamlin, who was 16 in 1959, was a rising senior when he learned the schools wouldn’t open. A faithful student, Hamlin never missed a day of school. Hamlin, an only child, was also on track to be the first to graduate from high school. His mom and dad had to leave school in the 6th and 7th grades to start working.

“I think that my most memorable moment was probably the last day of school when schools closed for the summer. The likelihood we would not be returning to school in the fall — that, to me, was devastating. I worried about it all summer because I had no idea what was going to happen,” he said.

That summer, family members in Baltimore and Philadelphia tried to convince Hamlin’s parents to let him live with them. He didn’t want to leave his home in Rice, a small community outside Farmville in Prince Edward County.

“So we just placed faith in God that something would happen, something would show up,” he said.

Labor Day came and went. The schools still didn’t open.

“That’s when it really hit home for me that we were at a loss,” Hamlin said.

Students head to Kittrell in North Carolina

One Saturday morning, a friend of Hamlin’s informed him and his parents that Kittrell Junior College in North Carolina had opened its doors to the students in Farmville. The college had reached an agreement with the county board to offer a high school curriculum on its campus. The next day, his parents sent him 125 miles south. Fifty-eight students from Farmville continued their education at Kittrell.

“I felt very lonely the moment I saw my dad and mom pull away from the parking lot,” Hamlin recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘How am I going to make it?’”

Hamlin, who had been raised a Muslim, soon learned he couldn’t always eat in the cafeteria because it frequently served pork, a staple in the North Carolina diet. “There were quite a number of days I went hungry because I couldn’t eat what they had prepared,” he said.

His mom eventually bought him a little oil burner stove, similar to a hotplate, to prepare meals in his dormitory.

He graduated from high school in the spring of 1960. He stayed on to earn his associate’s degree at the junior college. His sophomore year he met his wife. They celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.

From college to the Air Force

After Kittrell, he spent a semester at North Carolina College in Durham. He then moved to Richmond, Virginia to work for the Medical College of Virginia.

During that time, the Vietnam War draft began. Hamlin signed up for the Air Force where he spent the next 20 years traveling across the US and all over the world, including Taiwan and Germany.

Early on in his military career, Hamlin got the “shock” of his life that began to change his perspective. While based in Savannah, Georgia, he had been assigned to the nursing unit. His boss was a white man from Georgia.

“He treated me with so much respect,” Hamlin recalled.

That sergeant needed to leave for a period of time and asked Hamlin to take charge of the 19-person nursing unit.

“Here’s a man who is willing to place his trust in me, giving me his reasons why he felt like I was the person to get the job done. That began to change my perspective about what had happened to me in the past,” Hamlin said. Later, he added, “And so I have to start thinking about people being people and an individual as an individual and not categorizing everyone into one lump piece. That helped me get to a different place.”

Coming full-circle

Hamlin retired from the military in 1984. He went back to school at Indiana University to finish his bachelor’s degree. He spent the next 20 years working in employment training services.

“It made me feel really wonderful because the one ingredient I could transition from the military and even before the military all the way through my entire life is the desire to help people, to help somebody get to a better station in life,” he said.

In 1999, Hamlin returned to Virginia to work for Telamon Corp, a nonprofit organization that helps the needy, as its deputy state director.

“It was kind of like coming full circle. I was now back working in a region, providing employment training and education services where I had been denied educational opportunities. And that was in so many ways so gratifying,” Hamlin said.

The long-term economic impact

It’s hard to measure the exact impact the school closings had on Farmville’s economy, but it certainly had one.

“What we recognize is people left the county who would have stayed who could have contributed economically,” said Fergeson, the African-American history professor. “People didn’t come to the county because the schools were closed.”

She noted that the two colleges — Longwood and Hampden-Sydney — had trouble recruiting faculty during that time because there wasn’t a public school system.

“I think it had a major impact on Farmville,” Hamin said. “The black population began to dwindle. At the time, it was probably 50-50. As families had to try and find other things to maintain their livelihood, some families did actually have to leave. Many families couldn’t leave because of their commitment to white farm owners.”

He added: “With no public schools. the economic development of Farmville really fell off. Companies wouldn’t look at Farmville as a place to expand or bring their organization. No public education, that just became a big issue.”

Moton today

Today, the Moton High School operates as a museum. Its alumni have been incredibly active in the community, especially speaking to today’s generation of students.

“We try to stress how important [education] is. You can’t just sit back and say somebody else will do it. ‘I hate school because I don’t like reading or I don’t like whatever.’ But if you don’t do it, you’re dooming yourself. And if enough people aren’t doing it, they’re dooming themselves to have to repeat the times of the past,” Hamlin said.

Today the Moton High School serves as a museum. (Photo Credit: William T. Ziglar, Jr.)
Today the Moton High School serves as a museum. (Photo Credit: William T. Ziglar, Jr.)

Taikein Cooper, 28, the current chair of the local Democratic party, grew up hearing many of the stories about the school closures.

In high school, he spent the summer working as an assistant manager at an apartment complex where he witnessed firsthand the hardships experienced by people in the community who were denied an education when they couldn’t fill out or read a rental application.

“That’s something that resonated with me,” Cooper said, “and it’s something I definitely paid attention to.”

Nowadays, Cooper said, there’s been more civil discourse in the community than ever before.

“I think we’ve had a lot more civil discourse here than we once had,” Cooper said. “And, I think we are more accepting of people that may not think or feel the same way we think or feel. You feel more tolerant of diversity.”

The Moton Museum has played an integral role in these conversations and has become a place of healing for the community.

“The administration from the Moton Museum has done a remarkable job at making it a community museum and being a part of the community — having these conversations, the power of forgiveness, planning sessions for improving our public schools, having these conversations and community meetings about enhancing relationships between law enforcement officers and communities of color in light of things transpiring around the country. We are being proactive about being on the right side of history this time.”

In 2008, the Prince Edward County County Board of Supervisors apologized for its actions in 1959. They installed a “light of reconciliation” in the bell tower of the county courthouse. It doesn’t mend the ills of the past, but it’s a step forward.

Today, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors is made up of eight members, four of whom are African-American. The board also has two women. As for the constitutional officers in the county — the Sheriff, Commonwealth’s Attorney, Commissioner of Revenue, the Treasurer, and Clerk of the Courts — three of the five are African-American. Four of the five constitutional officers are women.

“I’d agree we’re on the right side of history this time — there’s still a ways to go but there’s movement forward,” Hamlin said.

The author was raised in Farmville, Virginia.

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance

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