Write Around the Corner-Ken Woodley
For five years, beginning in 1959, Prince Edward County closed its public schools in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. More than 2,000, predominately black students, were denied a formal education and lives were forever changed. We travel to the Moton Museum in Farmville to talk about The Road to Healing: A Civil Rights Reparations Story
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♪ Every day every day
♪ Every day every day
♪ Every day
♪ Every day I write the book
- Welcome. I'm Rose Martin,
and we are here in Farmville at the Moton Museum.
You may have heard the name Moton Museum
because you're familiar with Ken Woodley's book,
The Road to Healing.
What you might not know
is that Prince Edward County right here in Farmville
closed the school for five years
in a massive resistance to
the Brown versus Board of Education decision.
As a part of that decision,
over 2,000 black children were kept away from an education.
So many lives were changed during that time period.
We're going to talk to Ken about his work,
and about how those reparations came to be.
Ken, welcome to Write Around the Corner.
- Thank you so much for having me, Rose.
- So, this is an amazing space, this Moton Museum.
Why do you think it was important
to talk about your book right here?
- Because this is the birthplace
of the Civil Rights Movement.
I used to think that I had to make that argument
but now that the US Civil Rights Trail debuted last summer,
they have a timeline of significant events
on their website.
And the very first one is this place here.
April 23rd, 1951,
when students led by 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns
went on strike against separate and grossly unequal schools.
They went on strike for two weeks,
and they followed it up with legal action
that became part of the Brown Case.
Now this was more than four years before Rosa Parks
refused to move to the back of a bus
in Montgomery, Alabama.
So, it's astonishing that a 16-year-old girl,
a young woman,
would have the courage and vision
to do something like this anywhere.
But a 16-year-old African American young lady
in the heart of Jim Crow, Farmville,
between two former capitals of the Confederacy,
Richmond, and Danville.
Now when they first went on strike, as I said,
it was because they had a grossly unequal school.
There were tar paper shacks built outside this building
to accommodate the overflow.
And a couple of blocks away,
the white school was a Taj Mahal by comparison.
Two stories brick, with an inner courtyard.
And she just grew so frustrated that she gathered a handful
of the key student leaders that she knew here,
and they secretly planned this strike.
And they referred to it amongst themselves
as theManhattan Project to emphasize to each other
the importance of keeping it absolutely secret.
- Barbara John's younger sister had no idea.
No family members had any idea. And it was in this building--
- So her parents were also surprised?
- Oh, very much so. Every parent was surprised.
But the auditorium just outside this space that we're in,
that is where they called the student body in,
that day, April 23rd.
They told the teachers to leave.
They lured the principal to downtown Farmville
to get him out of the way,
and they told the student body what they were going to do.
And all 450 of the students here walked out.
And as I said, they stayed out for two weeks.
So, it was concerted, non-violent action
against racist policy,
and they followed it up with a legal fight.
And that's the blueprint
of the civil rights movement of the '60s and into today.
- Wow. So, to be here is just so impactful.
And when I think about a 16-year-old, right,
as you said, having the courage to step up and say,
"This isn't right."
And I love the one line in your book
where Barbara talks about saying her prayers,
about the education, and why things are working.
And there's a line in there where you say,
"But she prays to God to say, 'I'm one of your children too.'"
- Yeah. "God, please help us. We are your children too."
- We are your children too.
- She was a very spiritual person.
Her younger sister Joan told me
they lived out on a farm in Darlington Heights
which is about 15 miles outside of town,
and there was a stump by a creek
out in the woods down by their house
that Barbara would go and meditate,
and just think about life and the world.
And she would tell her sister and her brothers,
"Don't follow me. Don't mess with me.
This is serious when I go out here to think."
But what a visionary. What a visionary.
- Well, and, this was something that she was maybe born to do.
And I've read that you feel that about your work also
that, you know, going through college
and then getting this job offer
at the Farmville Herald when you think,
"How could I end up right back here?"
And then realizing maybe this was your chosen crusade
of something that you were, you know,
you were put in a specific place at a specific time,
and you saw it through with what courage.
So, you've done quite a lot of work,
and we'll get into a lot of that
when we begin to talk about your book.
But what was it that drove this for you to say,
"I'm this guy coming here. I've heard these stories.
I'm back here working at this paper
where the history of it,
these same people were ones that were saying,
'Yes. Close the schools.
Yes. We don't-- you know,
we don't support the integration.'"
What was that like for you to come back and say,
"There's something special here I need to take care of."
- Well, when I came to work at the Farmville Herald
straight out of Hampden-Sydney College,
I'd never heard of any of this.
I'd never heard of Barbara Johns,
and the American history that she and her classmates made.
And I had never heard of mass resistance.
I had no idea that schools closed here,
had no idea the newspaper at which I'd just been employed
was the leading public voice too in public education
rather than integrate.
And, you know, I was born here
only because my mom and dad got married real early,
and I was born just after my dad completed his sophomore year
And so, they rented an apartment here for two years.
But they were from Richmond.
So, after he graduated in 1959,
they moved back to Richmond and I grew up.
But when I applied for colleges,
Hampden-Sydney was the only one that would have me,
so I had to come back.
And then, after four years,
I had all these grandiose English major visions
of, you know, getting a job at a big daily newspaper
and writing the great American novel.
But the Farmville Herald was the only job offer I had,
so I had to stay.
And then, in the first year,
I found out what had happened here,
and it felt like I'd been parachuted behind enemy lines
- Let's talk about that moment
because that had to be something.
You know, when you say
parachuted behind enemy lines for life,
do you remember that moment
when you discovered what had happened right here
in a place you had grown up and loved but never really knew?
Do you remember that feeling?
- It's as if it happened yesterday.
I was upstairs in the newsroom at the Farmville Herald,
and a Hampden-Sydney professor's wife came upstairs,
she stopped, stood in front of my desk,
and looked at me.
And her eyes were the proverbial throwing daggers,
and anything else she could think of.
I could tell she was really upset and angry with me.
And I had no idea why.
And she wouldn't say anything.
But then, finally she said these words,
"You know what happened here, don't you?"
I'm like, "No. I've got no idea.
What in the world are you talking about?"
And all she said in response was,
"You need to go to Longwood College,"
It was Longwood College then.
"Go to the rare bookroom, and ask for this book,
They Closed Their Schools , by Bob Smith."
And then she shot me another look.
I could tell she was disgusted with me.
I waited a couple of beats, and I followed her out the door.
Longwood College was just two and a half blocks
from my office.
I went into the rare bookroom. I asked for the book.
I sat in the chair to the left of the door.
The title of the book told me something, obviously,
but it didn't tell me where or by whom.
And you couldn't check these books out
because they were out of print.
So, I just started flipping through the pages,
and as I did that, I started recognizing names.
I started seeing the Farmville Herald.
I started seeing Jay Barry Wall Sr.,
who was still the publisher and editorial writer
when I was there.
And those names flew up at me like shrapnel.
And it was like all the bones were pulled out of my body.
It was like, "Oh my god. It was here."
And the Farmville Herald obviously had a lot to do
with the closing of the schools.
And I gave them the book back, and I walked back to the office,
and it was a short walk in space and time,
but the whole world had just changed in that moment.
In that moment-- - You were a different guy.
- I was, because the world was different.
When I went into the rare bookroom,
the world was not a world where children could be
locked out of school for five years,
not even for five minutes.
It is all these years later, Rose,
and I still can't believe it happened
even though I spent my entire career here,
and I wrote a book about it.
I just can't imagine it.
But that moment in time will live with me forever.
But I had no idea that I could do anything about it.
I didn't even cover Prince Edward County.
But as my career progressed,
and I went from being news editor to-- a shock,
I was named editor.
They gave me the keys to the editorial page,
and let me test drive it for a year.
- What was going on in the back of your mind
after being in that rare bookroom
as your career is progressing?
Was this a story that was always with you and nagging at you
that there was something, action you needed to take?
- I could sort of feel destiny pulling at me
without really understanding.
I did almost get a job at a daily
a couple years after going to work at the Farmville Herald,
right after I was married.
I went to a job interview at a really good daily at Virginia,
and I left feeling like they were going to offer me the job.
And I was really excited about it.
But on the drive back home,
I started having these misgivings.
And by the time I got home, I couldn't explain it,
but I just felt like, "No. Don't do it.
If you leave, something bad is going to happen."
And so, I called them the next day
and said, "I withdraw my name."
And when I became editor, when I had that pulpit--
And people need to remember this was far beyond
Internet days and all these digital outlets.
I mean, a community newspaper, that was the platform.
That's where everybody went for their news.
And a newspaper in any community had a lot of power,
a lot of influence.
And so, once I found myself in that pulpit,
my life started to make sense in the fact that I had been
pulled back here by life, by destiny.
And, you know, I think we all need to live our lives
as if it were our destiny to be exactly where we are.
- Oh, I love that line in your book too
where you said that because I really thought about that.
I thought, you know, so many times,
we're moving forward, or we're thinking for the next thing
instead of stopping in the moment and saying,
"This is exactly where you need to be."
- And if we take that approach
and feel like this is where we're meant to be,
wherever that is, and look around,
and ask ourselves, "What needs to be done
for people in this community to make it better?
Is there a wound that needs healing?"
And for me, it was just really, really obvious. And--
- So, let's talk about that process.
What was that like?
You, as the editor of a paper that had, you know,
really been seen as almost the enemy of what was going on,
and yet, you wanted to be an advocate for a community
and a generation of people who were left aside
when these doors closed.
How did you begin that process? What did you do?
- Saving this building
was a key moment for this entire community,
and a key moment for me as an editor
and a preacher for racial healing and reconciliation,
because the county was prepared to sell this building
to a developer.
And they said they would use the money
to invest in other school construction,
but this was like Independence Hall.
- Hmm-mm. KEN: The students here,
they believed in the words of the Declaration of Independence
more than the men who signed that document
after they wrote it because, you know,
they believed in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
for a small percentage of white men
that were just like them.
But Barbara Johns and her classmates
took America at its word,
and that is one of the important things
that this country did.
It set the bar high in its founding documents.
And people like Barbara Johns have been pulling this country,
pulling all of us up to those ideals ever since,
and it's something we strive to do today.
So, saving this building got the whole community talking
about massive resistance,
and also the positive history
that the African American community had made here
in the 1950s.
And it's lifted up the rug,
and people started sweeping things out
that had never been talked about.
That's why I could work at the Farmville Herald for a year,
and had no idea that any of this had happened.
- So, were you embraced by the community
as you started to ask for those pieces of rugs to be lifted,
and stones to be turned over to get the story out?
How did the community respond to you?
- The community--
I never confronted any outright hostility,
and I never looked toward the community
for any affirmation
because I was just focused on what I felt God wanted me to do.
- Doing the right thing.
You wanted to do the right thing.
- Yeah. And I had-- I had a lot of good affirmation
from the African American community.
But one of the key moments in my life, for me,
was a letter I received
from the iconic Civil Rights lawyer Oliver Hill
who had argued the Prince Edward case as part of Brown.
And I sent him an editorial I wrote
on the 40th anniversary of the Brown decision in 1994.
And he sent me a letter back
that I have, to this day, framed in my office,
not as an egotistical thing, but because his words to me--
he said that it was one of the tragedies of our times
that we didn't have in the 1950s and 60s,
more people like you that had sensibilities
and were able to reach out, and help our nation heal,
and bring the races together.
So, he was telling me
that what I was feeling in my heart and soul,
it was not delusional, it wasn't grandiose.
I wasn't, you know, on some messianic complex crusade,
but whatever ability God had given me as a writer
and within my heart and soul,
I was in the place that needed it most.
- Well, and that touched me in your book too.
And so, then I'm thinking, "Well, you're on this quest.
You realize these lives have been changed forever
and it wasn't enough to save this building."
You realized that true reparations needed to happen.
And so, you undertook quite a quest
in trying to work some things through the General Assembly,
- And it ended up making US history.
The late Julian Bond told me,
three weeks before the final funding vote
in the General Assembly in 2004
that if you're successful, he told me,
this will be the first Civil Rights year
in reparation in US history.
And as far as I know, it's still the only one.
And this was a February morning in 2003.
I was driving to work into Prince Edward County
and I was thinking about the General Assembly
which was considering an apology for the closing of schools here,
and the states rolling it.
And a Latin teacher in Prince Edward County High School,
was urging the school board to give honorary diplomas
to those who weren't able to earn a real one.
And in a flash, those two things came together,
and the idea came for state-funded scholarships
for those African American children
locked out of school in 1959 through 1964,
who were now in their 50s, a program to give back
the educational opportunity that had been stolen.
- Well, and your action, in order to bring together
former governors, legislatures, to get a bill
to where you had proposed two million dollars
to be able to go through these scholarships,
and then you found a donor, right,
who was able to contribute.
And I guess one of the touching points in the book
was when you had a group
realizing that you needed to take them to Richmond
and that they needed to see the impact.
They needed to see, put eyes on the actual people.
And the line in your book
where they weren't able to get on the bus as children,
and then they're riding the bus,
with those faces pressed against the wall,
dressed up and headed to Richmond,
just really struck me as a visual piece
that I could imagine the impact that had to make.
And then, just the people that were impacted
from the scholarships that you've done. I just--
That has to be just so rewarding, but also,
you fought hard to make that happen.
- There were some times my fumes had fumes,
but that day, when all of us rode
Prince Edward County public school buses
from here to the state capital,
and we gathered on the Capitol steps
with Governor Mark Warner,
and some of those who'd been locked out of school
as children, who were able to speak for this legislation.
Which, and I must say
that if the fight in the General Assembly
for funding for this scholarship program
had been a roller coaster,
it never would've passed a safety inspection.
Nobody would ever have written on it
because the General Assembly had so many twists and turns.
At one time, they wanted to create the program,
but without any money.
But a scholarship is inherently the money,
and a scholarship without the money is a lie.
So, it was at the very last minute on veto day,
six weeks after the session ended,
when the General Assembly comes back to consider
gubernatorial amendments and vetoes.
It was only on that day after a debate
that we were able to get
that two-million-dollar funding through,
with a million of it at the end,
a million of it was
Commonwealth of Virginia dollars,
and another million was from the billionaire philanthropist,
the late John Kluge, of Charlottesville,
who had been watching from afar,
and contacted then United States Senator John Warner and said,
"I've got a million dollars that I will give to this."
- That's remarkable.
And when I think about the lives that then were touched
as a result of these scholarships.
It actually attracted many more people
to apply for them
than they thought was going to happen, didn't it?
- Yes. That was one of the arguments
when the General Assembly said,
"We just want to give $25,000 a year,"
which was beyond a joke. To me, that was an insult.
They didn't think anybody would use it.
They said, "Oh, that was a long time ago.
And they're so old.
They're not going to want to use it."
Well, approximately 250 of those children, now adults,
have been served by that program.
- But, again, as I'm continuing to read your book,
you didn't stop there.
And you knew that more needed to be done in the town,
further on downtown. What was that about?
- Prince Edward County had never apologized
for closing the schools.
And part of reparation, repairing the harm,
is acknowledging the wound and saying, "I'm sorry."
So, the idea for "The Light of Reconciliation" came to me.
Another gift from God.
I mean, you don't boast about it;
you don't take credit for it
because where do ideas come from?
You know, they're a gift. They're a spiritual gift.
And credit to Prince Edward County's
board of supervisors for embracing the idea.
But there's a Light of Reconciliation
shining 24/7 atop the very same courthouse
where the board of supervisors in 1959
voted to wipe public education off the face of the earth
here in this county.
And as a part of that Light of Reconciliation,
there's a permanent public apology
for massive resistance on the courthouse lawn.
And on the night that was dedicated in 2008,
Main Street was blocked off,
and over 300 people, black and white,
gathered as the sun set.
And in that gloaming, Barbara John's sister
gave the word for the light to be illuminated
for the very first time.
And that was such a moving moment,
a healing moment.
And the story in Prince Edward County,
it starts in such darkness.
The arc is one of such hope
because we are still so divided as a nation over race.
So the whole arc of Prince Edward's story,
where the community is now, and where it's headed,
is a signpost, a trailblaze for this nation.
There's so much that the United States of America
can learn from Prince Edward County's story.
- We can get better, I think we all can.
And your story, The Road to Healing ,
I'd love for you to read some for us.
Would you be willing to read a passage?
- I would enjoy that very much.
"I look at a photograph taken in Prince Edward County
"in the fully bloomed spring of 1959,
"five years after the US Supreme Court's
"Brown Vs. Board of Education decision.
"The world itself was unprepared for what was about to happen.
"Even in this small black and white photo,
"it's clear the sky was too blue,
"the leaves on the trees too green,
"the sun too warm on the skin.
"There was no sign of onrushing doom anywhere.
"Something inside me still trembles.
"I see my two-year-old self in the street
"beyond the front yard of the apartment
"my parents rented, a few rooms downstairs
"in one of the neighborhood's Victorian houses.
"I was born in Farmville, the county seat
"of Prince Edward County, in 1957,
"while my father completed his final two years
"at Hampden-Sydney College six miles down the road.
"Within that photograph, the world appears to be perfect,
"and it was for me, with my blonde hair,
"blue eyes, and white skin.
"They were my passport to any seat on the bus,
"any lunch counter stool, liberty and justice for me.
"I hold that apparent Eden in the palm of my hand
"with great care as if it were a priceless artifact.
"In fact, it is the rarest and most impossible of artifacts.
"In the picture, the world looks just the way God made it,
"but the snapshot lies.
"It is an artifact of a world that did not exist,
"even as the shutter captured it on film.
"Such black and white photographs
"were the only way those colors were ever integrated
"in Farmville in the 1950s.
"Beyond the border of those photos,
"Prince Edward County was about to shatter
"for African American children.
"The sun would still shine indiscriminately
"from a blue sky,
"and through green leaves onto the community's children,
"but the sun would be alone in doing so.
"There I am, a happy child
"playing on a tree-shaded lawn on High Street,
"but just four blocks away, turning left on Main Street,
"the county's board of supervisors
"was poised to shut down an entire public-school system
"and keep it closed for five years.
Mines would stay closed even longer."
I guess, on behalf of so many, thank you.
It's hard to fathom
that something like this could happen
with so many people supporting it.
So, thank you so much for joining us
and for sharing your story, and for going on this crusade--
- Thank you so much-- ROSE: --to make a difference.
- --for asking me to be here and share it.
ROSE: I want us to make a special thanks to Ken Woodley
for sharing his book, The Road to Healing,
and the folks here at the Moton Museum.
If you haven't been to Farmville,
I would encourage you to please come.
See this amazing museum, and to learn more about Ken,
his work, the research behind his book,
please check out more of our conversation online,
and tell your friends about us.
I'm Rose Martin,
and I'll see you next time Write Around The Corner .
♪ Every day every day
♪ Every day every day
♪ Every day
♪ Every day I write the book
♪ Every day every day
♪ Every day
♪ Every day I write the book
♪ Every day every day
♪ Every day
♪ Every day I write the book
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