Moton Museum Unveils First Permanent Exhibit On Struggle For Civil Rights In Education

April 25, 2001

FARMVILLE, Va.-The first permanent exhibit of the Robert R. Moton Museum here, to be unveiled on April 23, summarizes half a century of efforts by African-American citizens of Prince Edward County to secure equal educational opportunity for all young people. In more than 70 black-and-white photos and numerous documents and artifacts, the exhibit covers the dramatic struggle for civil rights in education in this central Virginia community.

The story begins with the extremely unequal facilities for black students in the Jim Crow era of the 1940s, typical of “separate but equal” public education throughout the South. The exhibit focuses on the historic student strike at all-black Moton High School in 1951 to protest those conditions-an event which reporters have begun to call the beginning of the civil rights movement. It shows the filing by NAACP attorneys of a local suit, Davis v. Prince Edward, which became part of the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and 1955-probably the Court’s most important decision of the 20th century, which ruled that racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.

The new exhibit follows the doomed movement by white Virginia politicians to mount “massive resistance” to the Court’s desegregation ruling, and its catastrophic effects in Prince Edward: the closing of the public schools here from 1959 to 1964 in an attempt to avoid allowing black and white children to attend school together. In covering those years, the exhibit shows a community torn apart along racial lines and a “crippled generation” of African-American students, most deprived of any formal education for half a decade. But the display also shows the reopening of the schools in 1964-at first a poorly funded, almost all-black system-and its gradual transformation into a genuinely biracial, academically strong public school system at the end of the 20th century.

“It is a story of heroism, tragedy, and eventual triumph,” says Rev. Kitty Smith, the Moton Museum board member, and former co-teacher of a\ Longwood College course on the local civil rights movement, who chaired the museum committee designing the exhibit. Rev. Smith reports that the committee faced two major problems in mounting the exhibit. First, she says, because there was no violence in Prince Edward-no burning buses, no dogs or fire hoses-the visual representation of the local story lacks the overt drama of civil rights histories elsewhere in the South. “This is a story of peaceful protests and court cases,” she notes-“dramatic but slow change within the democratic system.”

Second, she laments the fact that the press covered the disastrous side of the story-the closing of the schools-much more thoroughly than the heroic strike of 1951, the county’s participation in Brown v. Board, or the recovery of the public schools in the last third of the century. “This isn’t just a story of blindness and injustice,” she notes. “It’s also a story of heroism and triumph and the ultimate coming together of black and white people to develop a strong system of public education.”

The exhibit, which was curated by Lorie A. Mastemaker, director of the Esther Thomas Atkinson Museum at Hampden-Sydney College, occupies two former classrooms in the museum. A third room allows visitors to watch] video tapes of the Prince Edward story. The exhibit was funded by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy.

Regular spring hours for the Moton Museum, through the end of the school year, will be 1:00-3:00 Wednesday and Friday afternoons and noon-3:00 Saturdays. Groups of 10 or more can arrange for tours at other hours by calling the museum at (804) 315-8775 at least 3 weeks in advance.

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