Write Around the Corner

S3 E10 | FULL EPISODE

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

AIRED: February 04, 2020 | 0:26:55
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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.

- Mm-hmmm.

- 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

at Hampden-Sydney.

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

by life.

- 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 impacted,

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,

didn't you?

- 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,

Linwood Davis,

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."

- Wow.

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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