Cainan Townsend has been connected to the Robert Russa Moton Museum his entire life. Now he will shape its future.
Townsend (’15, M.S. ’20) has been named the next executive director of the museum. He began his new role July 1.
“It means the world to me to be associated with the Moton family,” said Townsend. “I’ve grown up here and I’m so grateful to be able to step into this leadership role and help write future chapters of the Moton Museum story.”
I’ve grown up here and I’m so grateful to be able to step into this leadership role and help write future chapters of the Moton Museum story.
Cainan Townsend ’15, M.S. ’20
Townsend began full-time work at Moton in 2016 after interning at the museum as an undergraduate. He served for six years as the director of education and outreach before being named managing director in 2022. Former executive director Cameron Patterson (’10, M.S. ’17) was named Longwood’s Vice President for Student Affairs this spring.
“Cainan is a talented educator, a gifted communicator, and a trusted leader,” said Patterson. “Over my six years at Moton, I have watched him grow into this role as he developed community-focused initiatives and taught the story of civil rights in Virginia to thousands upon thousands of people. He is brimming with ideas for how to continue to develop this special piece of American history, and I’m eager to support those strategic developments.”
Townsend views the museum as much more than a historical exhibit. For him, it’s an opportunity to further engage people in conversation about social justice in the 21st century, civil rights, and diversity.
We are more than a museum, we are a place to gather. We have a permanent exhibit but my goal is that our visitors come back multiple times, and not just to tour the installations. That’s why everything we do is community-facing.
Cainan Townsend ’15, M.S. ’20
“We are more than a museum, we are a place to gather,” he said. “We have a permanent exhibit but my goal is that our visitors come back multiple times, and not just to tour the installations. That’s why everything we do is community-facing. From the Moton Museum Teacher Institute every summer that focuses on pedagogy and teaching Virginia’s civil rights history to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations to our annual partnership with the Virginia Children’s Book Festival’s hip-hop program, we are proud to bring diverse groups of people together. That’s one of the things that makes Moton so special to the community.”
Townsend is personally connected to the history of civil rights in Prince Edward County. His great-grandfather, John Townsend, and great-aunts, Mildred and Arlene Townsend, were plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education. His father and his father’s siblings and several cousins were locked out of school from 1959-64 during the Massive Resistance era.
As a member of the second-generation of Moton families, Townsend feels a special calling to engage with his peers.
“Those Moton family members who were part of the civil rights struggle in Virginia are very active in promoting our mission,” he said. “Looking ten or fifteen years down the road, I want to make sure their children and grandchildren are as engaged as much as they are. They are our next docents, volunteers, donors, and staff. One big part of my job is to engage them so they are carrying that legacy to future generations.”
Another priority is professionalizing the museum’s rich archives. Already Townsend has been working with Longwood’s Greenwood Library staff and the Virginia Association of Museums to strategically begin work on preserving the history of Moton.
While managing director of Moton, Townsend served on the Virginia Commission on African American History Education in the Commonwealth, a group of educators across Virginia who worked to amend and edit the standards of learning to be more inclusive of the contributions of African-Americans in Virginia. He has also previously served on the Prince Edward County School Board.