When I was growing up, I knew this story in only the most general of ways. I didn’t have black neighbors, black friends, or black teachers. I hadn’t a clue how the closures had affected the only black person I knew as a child—my family’s housekeeper, Elsie Lancaster. Elsie worked for my grandparents when my mother was a child then worked for my parents for decades, too. She had sent her own daughter Gwen to live with an aunt in Massachusetts when the schools closed. My grandparents never even asked about Gwen after Elsie had accompanied her to Cambridge.
I attended the white academy my grandparents had helped found. I was entering eighth grade when Prince Edward Academy first admitted black students in 1986 in order to have its nonprofit status restored by the federal government. After college, I worked as a journalist, moving to Oregon, California, and Massachusetts. I began to recognize the privileged circumstances in which I had been raised and took an interest in writing about marginalized communities—people of color, immigrants, and those living in poverty. After I met my husband, Jason, and we thought about having children, the story of my hometown took on more meaning. I knew that the history of my hometown would be our kids’ history, too.
When I delved into Farmville’s past, it became clear that I couldn’t just blame my hometown for the shameful school closures. My family was also at fault. During the course of my research, I discovered that my late grandfather, S.C. Patteson, had been a founding member of the Farmville chapter of the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, which sought to prevent desegregation.
As I worked to describe what had happened in my hometown before I was born, affected students opened up and shared the stories of their childhoods, their wounds still raw. White members of the community—many of whom knew my grandfather—were more reticent to speak with me. By telling the story of my hometown, I was picking at a scab that was never allowed to heal. Even my high school history teacher shut down the conversation, suggesting the story had already been told.
And yet the history of the county is still relevant. Decades later, the impact of those years of missed education can still be felt through the county’s 16-percent illiteracy rate, four points higher than the state average, and 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. And the once-closed school district is now a failing system. Declining school enrollment has left it with a steadily falling budget and supervisors have declined to raise taxes to fix the problem. The private school—now renamed and open to students of all races—is still a symbol of segregation to some of those denied an education.
The injuries are still fresh and work still needs to be done to acknowledge this shameful past. A good place to start is the Moton Museum, the former black high-school-turned-civil-rights museum, which is bringing blacks and whites together to talk about what happened. The museum is telling the whole community’s story so that Prince Edward County can finally move beyond its tragic past.