Monday was a flexible learning day for my junior in high school. This new phenomenon in learning leaves it up to the student and parents to come up with meaningful learning activities on these days. On past flexible learning days, we have visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in downtown Richmond, driven to Charlottesville to visit Carter Mountain, or allowed her to simply catch up on homework.
As we approach her senior year, the school encourages parents to take their students of this age to tour colleges. On this day, we visited my older daughter at Longwood. In lieu of a tour, which she has done before with her sister, my younger daughter got to sit in on her sister’s Women’s and Gender Studies class. We also toured the Honors College offices and lounge. And after a great lunch at Bandito’s Mexican restaurant, we visited the Robert Russa Moton Museum.
I love that we somehow managed to fit in some very liberal teaching on this flexible learning day. I feel like we just made a rude gesture to some of the new regulations proposed already this legislative season as we ushered in a conservative governor in Virginia. He has already issued an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory, which was never a part of our K-12 curriculum anyway. There are also bills in queue in the General Assembly to reduce the rights of the LBGTQ community. Maybe our new governor should tour the Moton Museum, too, just to remind him how significant a part hate and discrimination played in Virginia’s history.
As an aside, just to be clear on my stance on the recent removal of Confederate monuments in Richmond and the name changes to several schools in our region once named for Confederate leaders, I believe there is a striking difference in changing who and what we honor in our society and learning from our painful and ugly history. There’s a reason why we don’t put villains on a pedestal.
The Moton School was the former Black high school in Prince Edward County, and it played a big role in the very ugly history of racism in Virginia. Now, before you go and tattle about me to Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who just this week announced his creation of the “tip line” where you can report teachers for using “divisive practices,” including discussing racism and LBGTQ issues, I must clarify that I’m not, in fact, a public school teacher. Yes, this tip line is actually a thing, astonishingly. As if teachers’ jobs aren’t challenging enough.
When I was a student at Longwood myself in the 90’s, the Moton school building was an eyesore. The old, dilapidated structure was boarded up and falling apart. It is the first landmark you see as you drive into the town of Farmville on Main Street from the west side. The school has been completely refurbished and is now rightfully representing a meaningful, albeit painful, part of American history. It’s crazy that this quiet little town contains such a disgraceful past, a past I was shocked and ashamed to discover during my college career.
One of the best classes I took at Longwood studied Prince Edward County’s role in Brown vs. Board of Education. Students in the Moton school protested their poor conditions, including significant overcrowding, hand-me-down books, and lack of resources like a gym, clinic, or showers. A Richmond lawyer decided to take their case to court, but only on the premise of forcing desegregation. This was the only way to ensure equality.
The leaders of Prince Edward County decided it would simply close schools for everyone rather than provide integrated public education, and they did so from 1959 to 1964. The Moton Museum clearly describes the timeline during the debate for integration and highlights the villains and heroes in the process. Reading some of the awful things that came out of the mouths of leaders at that time, well, some of the statements made me gasp out loud and brought tears to my eyes. The words stung. And although no one in their right minds would say any of those repulsive things publicly these days, I can’t help but acknowledge they are likely still being said behind closed doors. I mean, if politicians have the audacity to separate African-Americans from Americans in a statement about equality in a news conference in 2022, I have to assume there’s definitely uglier things being spoken in private.
Our class at Longwood was a joint venture between the Honors College and the African American Studies program. We had the most amazing guest speakers, the most famous of whom was Civil Rights activist Julian Bond. He was the most charismatic person I have ever met. We also went into the community and interviewed people directly affected by the schools closing. Many of them were shipped off to relatives up north, fragmenting families and causing great emotional turmoil. Others simply never finished school. The damage done will have ripple effects for generations. And while Black children had very limited opportunities for education during the school closures, whites formed their own private school. Now known as the Fuqua School, Prince Edward Academy was their answer for refusing to integrate.
We cannot simply sweep our past ugliness under a rug and forget about it. This seems to be the genteel way of the South. Make no mistake that there is plenty of ugly left in the area, as the Confederate Flag proudly displayed on the side of 360 in Amelia County on the way to Farmville from Richmond suggests. If we refuse to include any acknowledgement about racism in our curriculum for learning, we will be doomed to repeat our mistakes. And how can you learn about colonial times, the Civil War, or WWII without discussing racism? More importantly, we need to understand and appreciate the hardships that are faced by people of color in this world. We can’t change our biology, but we can learn to respect the characteristics that make each of us unique. Without knowledge and empathy, there can be no healing. But honestly, I don’t know how anyone can fully heal from racial trauma, and it’s not fair to simply move on like no crimes against humanity have been committed. And the crimes continue, sometimes in a different package.
It’s interesting to draw parallels today to the “separate but equal” mantra from the 50’s and 60’s as we now debate voting rights, again, in America. One may argue that the right to vote hasn’t actually been taken away with all of these new voting restrictions. However, you can’t tell me that reducing polling places in traditionally Black and Latino neighborhoods, making it a crime to give water to people waiting in line to vote, or extreme gerrymandering to dilute the power of your vote are measures of equality. These are strategies to suppress your voice; to temper the democratic process. It’s the same mantra. Different lipstick.
One thing that veganism has taught me is that all living beings deserve love and respect, but especially our fellow humans. To treat people unequally is to admit that you think some people are less than human. Let that discomfort sink in. Clearly, our nation has made egregious errors with this regard. From stealing land from Native Americans to slavery in our infancy as a country, to Japanese internment camps during WWII, to Jim Crow laws, to abusive border practices toward immigrants today, just to scratch the surface, our country has quite a history of cruelty. We really must fight against oppression of any kind, or we are not actually the Land of the Free. We are the land of the rich and powerful, in debt to the almighty altar of capitalism, while the rest of us fight for the leftovers at the table.
As you walk into the Moton Museum, you are guided into their gift shop. They have multiple books for sale, many of which I already have in my own collection. One stuck out to me, though, and it’s a title I recently picked up: Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, by Kristen Green. Now I am reading it. The author is a white woman who grew up in Farmville, reconciling her feelings about the discovery of the awful truths of her town, who also happens to be a talented investigative journalist. I highly recommend it.
Thank you for reading yet another political post. There are so many awful things going on in our nation right now, and I just really need to take the time to share my thoughts on occasion.
What do you think about this movement by conservatives to even more clearly whitewash our history? How do you feel about public school teachers being used as pawns in this process, as if their jobs aren’t difficult enough, even without the pandemic? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.