The Moton Story is the story of the Civil Rights movement. Learn about the fascinating history of the school and its connection to the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case.
Before Selma, before Montgomery, there was Farmville, where young people made history. The Civil Rights movement came to Farmville, Virginia, thanks to the courage of students protesting inequality.
The Moton Museum’s permanent exhibition, The Moton School Story: Children of Courage, tells the stories of the Prince Edward students who expanded the meaning of equality for all Americans.
The Walk-out Generation
On April 23, 1951, a group of Moton High School students walked out of their school and into history. To protest the overcrowded and inferior facilities at their school, 16-year-old Barbara Johns, niece of civil rights pioneers the Rev. Vernon Johns, organized and led a two-week strike during which students refused to attend classes. The students called upon lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), including Oliver W. Hill, to help them in their struggle for equal educational opportunities. The NAACP agreed to take the Prince Edward case on the condition that students and their parents would sue to challenge the constitutionality of segregation, not just to improve school conditions. Moton students and their parents agreed, and the case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County advanced to the Supreme Court, along with cases from four other states. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided these five cases in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in public education unconstitutional. Although a constitutional victory had been won, implementation of the Brown decision involved decades of struggle. The Commonwealth of Virginia imposed a policy of “massive resistance” that would effectively delay school desegregation until the 1960s.
The Lock-out Generation
In 1959 under federal court order to desegregate its schools, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voted not to fund the schools, effectively closing them.
The school closings dramatically affected lives. Teachers lost their jobs. Families sent their children out of the county to attend school. Many children simply did not go to school. Led by the Rev. L. Francis Griffin, of Farmville’s First Baptist Church, the students chose to fight for their right to public education through the courts. Community members organized training centers and grassroots schools for children to attend as they waited for the courts to resolve the crisis. By 1963 local young people were frustrated by the slow pace of change and inspired by the broader civil rights movement then sweeping the South. They staged nonviolent protests in downtown Farmville to protest the school closings and an end to segregation. These protests were one of the motivations for the U.S. Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to help establish the Prince Edward Free Schools. During the 1963-1964 school year, they provided children with free education while the Prince Edward case made its way to the Supreme Court.
In Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, the Supreme Court ordered the reopening of Prince Edward County public schools. This generation of students sacrificed five years of their own education to guarantee children in other communities would not be deprived as they had been. Together, the Walk-Out generation and the Lock-Out generation of Prince Edward students proved brave, creative and resilient in their pursuit of justice and equality for all Americans.
In 1996, the citizen-led Martha E. Forrester Council of Women saved the historic Moton High School from demolition. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and a museum in 2001. The museum includes the original school auditorium and a permanent exhibition completed in 2013 that features six galleries covering Prince Edward County’s struggle over school desegregation from 1951 to 1964. The auditorium — where Barbara Johns and 450-plus of her fellow students launched their strike — includes the original floors, coffers, doors, lighting and other details that date from the Civil Rights Era. Most prominent, the stage from which Barbara Johns inspired her schoolmates to strike is little changed from 1951. The Moton Museum continues to meet the needs of constituents as Virginia’s only Civil Rights Museum.
Learn more about civil rights in education.