Religion and the Prince Edward County School Closings
Michael is Associate Professor of Religion at Hampden-Sydney College in
Michael's first post concerns the 50th anniversary of the closing of schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, beginning in 1959 and going for five years (an undergraduate student of mine just completed a splendid senior thesis on this subject, which I hope eventually will be published: "Virginia's "Massive Folly": Harry Byrd, Prince Edward County and the Front Line." It is available here). Utzinger reflects on the role of religion in the Prince Edward County saga.
A Few Reflections on
On the courthouse lawn, the supervisors unveiled a memorial which, on one side, permanently immortalized the apology that Supervisor Fore had just read to the public. On the other side, the large plaque commemorated the illuminating of the “Light of Reconciliation” in the tower of the courthouse the previous summer. The language was unmistakably religious: “When we raise our eyes to see this light, may we incline our hearts and minds to shine our light of reconciliation toward all people.” The supervisors presented the flag that draped over the monument to the representatives of the
Over the course of the last year, I have served on two projects surrounding the anniversary of the school closings in
It takes very little effort to see that religion weaves through the Prince Edward story. The student strikers found an immediate ally in the Rev. L. Francis Griffin, the pastor of
However, close examination suggests that the threads of religion in this story are much more complex. While people can marshal their religion to challenge injustice or to maintain social hierarchies, religious systems themselves often make such attempts more or less credible. When student activists came to Farmville, they did not try to eat at segregated lunch counters; rather, they tried to attend white churches.
Some churches posted “guards” to prevent this; others simply called the police and had would-be worshippers arrested. The symbolic effect of denying black student worshippers access to a church made many white members uneasy. One “guard” at the local Episcopal church simply could not allow himself to turn away the African American worshippers—it just wasn’t right. Gordon Moss, a professor at the
The Prince Edward story also suggests to me that institutions are still worth studying and understanding, even if they do not constitute the whole cloth of religion in
Finally, by serving on the symposium team and the museum board, I have learned that that telling stories of the past can affect people’s lives. With a functional definition of religion I might argue that the