Religion and the Prince Edward County School Closings

Michael is Associate Professor of Religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. He is the author of Yet Saints Their Watch Are Keeping: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and the Development of Evangelical Ecclesiology, 1887-1937 (Mercer University Press, 2006). Recently he is writing a biography of the Rev. Dr. Charles R. Erdman (1866-1960), a Presbyterian minister and professor of practical theology at Princeton Seminary and a key figure in the Presbyterian fundamentalist-modernist controversies in the 1920s. He is also recently compelled by the importance of local religious history and the pedagogical problem of assuming the essential connection between religion and violence. Utzinger serves as moderator of the Southeastern Colloquium of American Religious Studies and on the board of the Episcopal Historical Society. He also participates in the College Theology Society’s evangelical-catholic theology consultation.

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 Prince Edward County, Virginia

J. Michael Utzinger

In 1951 R. R. Moton High School students led by Barbara Johns (niece of Rev. Vernon Johns) and John Stokes led a strike for better school facilities for African Americans in Prince Edward County, Virginia. The NAACP represented the students on the condition they would sue for the end of separate but equal education. The Supreme Court ultimately folded the Prince Edward case into Brown v. the Board of Education (1954). On 3 June 1959, when the government mandated the implementation of Brown, the Prince Edward County supervisors chose to stop funding public education for five years. Fifty years to the date, William “Bucky” Fore, stated that closing the schools was “wrong” and apologized on behalf of county “for the pain that was caused, for how those locked doors shattered opportunities and barricaded the dreams our children had for their lifetimes; and for all wounds known and unknown.” Soon after Fore’s speech, school Board President Russell Dove noted that the four educational institutions in the county (Prince Edward County schools, Fuqua School, Longwood University, and Hampden-Sydney College), all once segregated, now provided integrated education. Fuqua School, once the all-white Prince Edward Academy, now provided scholarships for African American students. This year Hampden-Sydney elected its first African American president, Dr. Christopher Howard, a notable development in its 233-year history. Sitting in the shadow of the courthouse, I knew things had changed significantly even since I came here ten years ago.

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 R. R. Moton Museum, a grass-roots museum organization that has worked tirelessly to gain broad community involvement to tell the story of education and civil rights in Prince Edward County. After a benediction by the Rev. Jim Ashton, pastor of First Baptist Church (a traditionally black church), all the students who had been of school age between 1959-1964 were invited to walk before the Memorial plaque. Photographs mixed with tears and smiles as the procession slowly moved its way around the courthouse lawn.

Over the course of the last year, I have served on two projects surrounding the anniversary of the school closings in Prince Edward County, both as an organizer for a symposium on the Prince Edward story at Hampden-Sydney College and as a board member for the R. R. Moton Museum. In these capacities I am struck by the pervasive role of religion in this otherwise apparently “non-religious” story. More important, as I reflect back over the past year, three ideas have struck me as a scholar of American religion. First, I believe that I have learned that religion is rarely a simple reflection of a community’s values nor does it simply act to comfort and mollify its adherents. Next, I think my involvement has suggested that the study of institutions is still important for the study of America religion. And finally, I have learned that historical work can affect people’s lives.

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 First Baptist Church. On one panel at the Hampden-Sydney symposium, Griffin’s sons, Skip and Eric, shared that they grew up in a house where their father discussed the ideas of Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr. During the closings the American Friends Service Committee volunteered to help children denied a public education. Many African American churches opened their doors to try to provide some rudimentary academic skills to those students denied public education. The role of white church communities was equally important. In the same way that black churches provided a space for self-determination for African Americans, Southern white churches during the 1950s often provided a haven from government interference. When the courts denied public funding for the local white academy, many white churches in Farmville provided spaces, spaces protected by the separation of church and state, to house this institution. James Kennedy, minister of Farmville Presbyterian Church, opposed the closing of the schools, a view not shared by the majority of his congregation. The apparent incongruity of his role as a public figure of a white church and his views on public education cost him his pulpit. These are the stories one would expect to hear.

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 State Teachers’ College (now Longwood University) and vestryman of Johns Memorial Episcopal Church, counted on just such a reaction when he conspired with his bishop and the student protesters. With backing of the bishop, Moss planned to meet the students at the door of the church and lead them to his pew. This he did in the presence of a shocked parish. Moss remained a thorn in the side of his church because many parish members found themselves in the awkward position of standing against their highest religious authority if they acted against him. A final example: as the school closings dragged on for years, L. Francis Griffin’s authority in his own church became more tenuous. Further, he became plagued with self-doubt. Griffin’s son Eric noted that late in his life his father confided that he still wondered if his decision to support a lengthy court battle was the best pastoral choice considering the individual lives that were directly affected by an absence of five years of public education. The Prince Edward story reminds that while religion can be a powerful tool to divide or unify, sometimes commitment to religion doesn’t simply comfort us or project a community’s wishes and dreams. Religion can also destabilize a community’s assumptions about their circumstances and leave an individual uneasy and uncomfortable over her beliefs and actions.

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 America. Religious institutions have importance, not only because members identify themselves with them, but because religious institutions have symbolic (perhaps vicarious) importance within the communities in which they reside. At the final session of the symposium at Hampden-Sydney, I arranged a panel of ministers to discuss religious resources for racial reconciliation in Prince Edward. During his talk the Rev. Michael Cheuk publicly acknowledged practices of discrimination and segregation practiced at Farmville Baptist Church. He then (in an unscripted moment) dramatically apologized to the Rev. Samuel Williams (sitting in the front row) because he was arrested for attempting to attend church there in 1963. The utter silence and rapt attention of the audience (including students, faculty, and townsfolk) underscored the gravity of the moment. Cheuk’s comments, of course, did not happen in a vacuum. Jim Ashton, the pastor of First Baptist Church (another panelist that evening) and he had already begun discussions of reconciliation. Cheuk and Williams had developed a friendship over the past year. When Cheuk spoke at the symposium, however, many folks remarked that he had courage. Why? Such an interpretation only makes sense if we recognize that he (and everyone else) knew that he spoke for more than himself. His apology had to be received, not only by those for which it was addressed, but also by his own community. Acceptance could not be guaranteed in either case. If Cheuk did not get fired by the deacon board (and he didn’t), his apology signaled a change at Farmville Baptist. And it mattered more to members of the community what he said as the pastor of the church rather than as an individual.

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 R. R. Moton Museum has acted as a civil religious institution. Moton promotes as its mission that it “attempts to promote positive discussion of integration and to advance positions that ensure racial harmony.” The museum has a large board of directors that represents broad community constituencies. Under the capable leadership of its director, Lacy Ward. Jr., this museum has become a symbol of reconciliation by promoting community healing through shared storytelling, both tragedies of the past and hope about the future. I have also learned that we historians too often ignore the ethical dimensions of our craft. I have never been so aware of this dimension as I have while working on the museum board. The dilemmas surrounding how we tell history are much more obvious when they are scrutinized in the relatively democratized space of the public sphere. Whose story do you tell or emphasize? What’s the “real” story? On what grounds was that decision made? Who has the effective power to withhold knowledge, money, or social imprimatur? All historical work has the potential to affect people’s lives; although it is easy to forget this if we write cloistered from communities about whom we write. We should become aware that our claims to tell the real story might really be a code for telling only the parts of the stories that interest us. The Prince Edward story has shown me that there is not a single story. There is neither a “white” side nor a “black” side of the story. Rather than the single voice of the historian disguised as virtuoso, history exists as a multitude of voices that act more like instruments in an orchestra that need to express themselves together.


John Fea said…
Welcome aboard, Mike!
Miranda Bennett said…
The title of this post brought back memories of some very interesting grad school conversations at UVA, so I was pleased to scroll down and discover that its author was part of those very same conversations. Glad to see you here, Mike! I look forward to your future posts (please recommend lots of books--we librarians use blogs like this to help identify materials for our collections).

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