Farmville Herald – April 8, 1999
FARMVILLE, VA.- At 10:30 Friday morning, April 23, representatives of the National Park Service will present to this central Virginia community a preliminary plan for the development of the former Robert R. Moton High School as a major civil rights museum. The ceremony will represent a dramatic contrast with the same day forty-eight years earlier. On the morning of April 23, 1951, on the same Moton auditorium stage where the Park Service plan will be unveiled, African-American students organized a historic protest.
Because of that student protest in 1951-an event some have called the beginning of the Civil Rights movement-the Moton building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1998. For the past two years the Park Service, using a Congressional grant of $200,000, has been devising a plan to guide local people in turning the building into the Robert R. Moton Museum: A Center for the Study of Civil Rights in Education. The Park Service envisions a museum which, while telling the story of Prince Edward people who lived through the tumultuous time of desegregation-including a five-year period (1959-1964) when the county closed its public schools-will eventually draw more than 50,000 visitors a year.
William Bolger of the Park Service’s Northeast Regional Office in Philadelphia, who has overseen the drafting of the plan, will formally present a preliminary version to Thomas Mayfield, president of the board of directors of the Moton Museum, and Hunter R. Watson, chairman of the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors. While soliciting public reaction to the preliminary version, the Park Service will continue to refine and finalize it, with an anticipated date of late 1999 for completion of the plan.
Keynote speaker on April 23 will be Mark L. Earley, Attorney-General of Virginia. “It is particularly appropriate for the Attorney-General to be with us as we receive the Park Service plan,” said Thomas Mayfield, “since the whole struggle to desegregate the schools here was waged in the court system.” Following the student walkout in 1951, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a suit against the county demanding an end to “separate but equal” public school facilities. That court case, Davis v. Prince Edward, became part of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954, in which the Court held that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. But Prince Edward, faced with a direct Federal court order to desegregate its schools in September 1959, closed them for five years rather than allow black and white students to attend schools together. It took a second Supreme Court decision, Griffin v. Prince Edward, to force the county to reopen its public schools in 1964.
Attorney-General Earley’s presence also signals Virginia’s interest in the cultural and historic preservation represented by the Moton Museum project, as well as its interest in the tourism potential of the museum. April 23 was chosen as the date for the unveiling of the Park Service plan because it will be the forty-eighth anniversary of the student walkout which began the long process of desegregating public schools in Prince Edward and the rest of Virginia. “It will be a dramatic contrast,” says Mr. Mayfield. “There, on the same stage where student leaders called for the protest in 1951, exactly forty-eight years later, we’ll receive a plan for turning this great old building into a state-of-the-art civil rights museum. Those of us who were here in 1951 would have found it hard to imagine that Prince Edward could ever move forward to where we are now.” The county’s public schools, now thoroughly desegregated, are generally considered among the best schools in central Virginia. In 1994 a reporter for New York Newsday, looking at all five of the school districts involved in the Brown decision forty years earlier, called Prince Edward “a model for the nation” in the successful desegregation of its schools.