Before Selma, Little Rock, or Montgomery, Farmville, Virginia was the birthplace of the student civil rights movement. This Friday marks the 70th anniversary of the student-led civil rights walkout at the Moton School in Farmville, led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns. The site of the school is now a museum, which preserves the legacy of these students who fought for equality, and it’s a great place to visit with your family.
The Robert Russa Moton School was the high school for Black students in Prince Edward County during the 1940s and 1950s. On April 23, 1951, Barbara Johns led the students there in a strike to protest the overcrowded and unequal facilities, which included tar paper shacks with pot-bellied stoves and no gym or cafeteria. Many of these students would later become plaintiffs in the Brown vs. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
When this ruling was made, many state and local leaders in Virginia still fought integration through Massive Resistance. Faced with a 1959 court ruling mandating desegregation, the Prince Edward County Schools, which includes Farmville and the Moton School, decided to close all schools for both whites and Blacks. For five long years, the public schools were closed, forcing students to find alternative schools or move. Most white students joined private academies but many Black students attended schools in church basements or left the county – or didn’t attend any type of school at all.
The Kennedy administration took special interest in the plight of the Prince Edward County students. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had a striking quote in March of 1963 – “We may observe with much sadness and irony that, outside of Africa, south of the Sahara, where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Viet Nam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras – and Prince Edward County, Virginia.” In September of 1963, the administration opened the Prince Edward Free Schools, and the following year, a Supreme Court ruling secured education for everyone.
To learn more about this history, watch this fantastic video.
The Moton Museum is located in Farmville, about 1.25 hours southwest of Richmond. The town is lovely to visit, especially for bike enthusiasts! Be sure to read my Farmville post for more information on visiting the quaint town.
The museum is housed in the original school, and you’ll get goose bumps as you walk into the auditorium where the walkout began. I could just visualize Barbara Johns as she stood on the stage and implored her fellow students to stand up for their rights.
After spending time in the atmospheric auditorium, explore the exhibits, which begin just past the auditorium’s stage.
The first room contains a description of the conditions at the school which prompted the protest. Your kids will be fascinated to see an original pot-belly stove.
You’ll also learn more about Barbara Johns and the students who led the walkout. They are immortalized in a moving statue on the grounds of the Virginia Capitol in Richmond, and a statue of Barbara Johns will soon represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol.
You’ll learn about the 5 different cases, including the one from Prince Edward County, which made up the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.
The following rooms detail Virignia’s Massive Resistance, which continued to fight against integration throughout the 1950s.
Reading about the decision to close the schools in Prince Edward County is still shocking, all these years later. The video, “Student Voices” about the students affected by the school closures is important to view.
The final gallery is hopeful, with the schools opening and free education available to all.
At the Robert Russa Moton Museum, your kids will be in awe of how a young girl, not much older than themselves, began a movement which led to the integration of schools all throughout the country. It’s a fantastic place to literally walk in history. If you can’t make it to Moton in person, be sure to check out the many events planned for the 70th anniversary on Friday – a 10-hour virtual event called Moton Live. It’s a must-see event!
- Cost: Free
- Recommended for: 10 and up
- Tour time: 30-45 minutes
- Gift shop located onsite
- Transportation: The museum has plenty of onsite parking.
- Dining options: There are several fast food options located directly across the street from the museum. Downtown Farmville is a short drive away. Our favorites there include Charley’s Waterfront Cafe and Macado’s.
- Nearby hotels: I’ve heard great things about the new Hotel Weyanoke.
- Nearby attractions include: Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail (look for signs throughout downtown Farmville), High Bridge Trail State Park, and Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park
Books to Read:
You can visit my shop on Bookshop.org to find recommended books about Black history. This site supports independent bookstores and creators.
Specific books about the civil rights movement in Prince Edward County are (Amazon affiliate links):
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up: