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Once Segregated Va. School To Become Civil Rights Center

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Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Va., will become a museum this summer. A student protest at the school led to one of the five cases to make up the historic Brown v. Board of Education case.
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Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Va., will become a museum this summer. A student protest at the school led to one of the five cases to make up the historic Brown v. Board of Education case.

This summer, Moton will open its doors for tours and events, but as a school, it was once forced to close its doors to students.

In the late 1950s, Virginia's massive resistance to desegregation took the form of school closings across the state. It was the subject of a news broadcast by CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow.

"Whether Virginia's high schools, which closed on a segregated basis, are ever reopened on an integrated basis or indeed ever reopened at all will determine what happens in the rest of the South," Murrow reported.

In September 1959, Prince Edward County voted to close all its public schools rather than desegregate. They didn't reopen for five years. Dorothy Lockett Holcomb was looking forward to fourth grade when she learned her school would be closed.

"It was devastating, it really was," she says. "I described it to somebody one time, it's almost...a feeling like somebody dying or something, you just feel really, really, that core of sadness...What am I gonna do with no education after fourth grade?"

So Holcomb's parents sent her to school in neighboring Appomattox County, where they pretended to be residents. Some students were sent out of state, far from their families and their familiar hometown.

Charles Taylor was devastated when he, along with some of his classmates, was sent to North Carolina.

"I was in a state of shock. You were just walking around like a zombie saying, 'When are they gonna come and get us? When are we going back to our school?'" he says.

Most of the county's white children ended up in hastily created private schools, like Prince Edward Academy. But some white families, like Eunice Ward Carwile's, couldn't afford the tuition.

"My parents couldn't afford 50 cents extra in any way, and that's when we came to a realization that we might not be able to go to school at all. So my parents decided to just move," Carwile says. "There was a time when every child in this county was denied access to free public education. It's not American."

There has been some attempt at reparations. But a bigger effort needs to be made, says Al-Tony Gilmore.

"Some kind of consideration -- and I mean considerations far beyond a medal -- needs to be done on these individuals who were lost," he says.

Gilmore, an archivist for the National Education Association, suggests that perhaps the heirs of Prince Edward County's lost students, could be provided with funding to attend college.

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