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Virginia Scholarship Reopens To New Applicants Locked Out Of School Decades Ago

A person stands outside wearing a pink shirt
Rita Odom Moseley was denied a public education in Prince Edward County Public Schools for five years starting in 1959. Megan Pauly/WCVE

The small downtown strip on Farmville’s Main Street is lined with small shops like cafes and antique stores. At the intersection of Main and Third is a bright teal and yellow mural that reads “America’s first two college town.” It’s home to Longwood University and Hampden Sydney College.

But Farmville is also known for something else: locking out hundreds of young, black students from its public schools. Following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Prince Edward County refused court-mandated integration. Instead, the school board voted to shutter its schools. While white students were able to go to private schools supported by state tuition grants, black students had nowhere to go. Rita Odom Moseley was one of them.

“At first I didn’t believe it,” said Moseley.

She was 12 years old and in middle school when suddenly, her school closed. And not just her school -- all of the schools in her district. She could see the chains and big locks on the doors from her house directly behind the elementary school.

“They stayed on there the entire time, the entire five years,” Moseley said. “And everything was removed from our playground there except for the big sliding board.”

For two years, 1959 and 1960, Moseley was without an education. She and a group of girlfriends would learn new songs, and practice dances while the boys would play basketball and read comic books.

“My brother had huge amounts of comic books and the guys used to come to just read the comic books or look at them,” Moseley said. “Because not everybody could read because school had been closed so long.”

The Moton Museum in Farmville details Prince Edward County’s role in the civil rights fight following implementation of massive resistance policies in Virginia. (Photo: Megan Pauly/WCVE)

Eventually Rita’s parents sent her to live with an older woman in Blacksburg, Virginia for a couple of years so she could go to school there. It was a difficult transition for Moseley.

“I wasn't told ahead of time that it’s in the mountains and the environment is completely different than your environment,” Moseley said. “And you would have to meet friends and a lot of things I wasn't expecting.”

After schools reopened in Farmville, she earned her high school diploma there. Now, she’s 72 years old. Just 10 years ago, she graduated from St. Paul’s College with a bachelor's degree. Then a couple of years after that, she got a master’s.

Moseley has written a book called " No School" inspired by her experience, and is working on another based on interviews with other students like her.

She says she never would have gotten these degrees without the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Program. Created in 2004, it's designed to help those like her who were denied an education by the state and local school boards.

“Educational opportunity had been stolen,” said Ken Woodley, a longtime journalist and editor for the Farmville Herald. “Nobody tried to give it back.”

He hadn’t heard of Massive Resistance when he came to work at the paper as a 22-year-old. But once he learned about it -- and how his paper had led the fight to keep schools segregated -- he was appalled.

In February 2003, he knew Virginia’s General Assembly was considering passing a resolution to express its regret for what happened. Woodley also knew that local high school teacher Linwood Davis suggested the school board give honorary diplomas to those affected.

“With an honorary degree at the end of the day, however well-meaning it is, it's a piece of paper that signifies nothing but someone's goodwill,” Woodley said.

He wanted to take things a step further and came up with the idea for a state scholarship fund to actually pay for those students to go back to school. He’s recently written a book about this called " The Road to Healing: A Civil Rights Reparations Story in Prince Edward County, Virginia."

“It was a reparation in my head from the get go,” Woodley said.

Ken Woodley came up with the idea to create a scholarship program to help students locked out of school following Brown v. Board of Education pursue a college degree. (Photo: Megan Pauly/WCVE)

He went to Virginia’s General Assembly and asked legislators to fund the scholarship. Eventually they approved $1 million which was matched by a wealthy donor. Woodley says contrary to some lawmakers beliefs that few would apply, there was a lot of interest.

“I could be on the phone from 8 a.m. to 6, 7 p.m. answering calls regarding the program,” said Brenda Edwards, who helped run the program for years.

She says there have been a lot of success stories. Nearly 90 people have received scholarship funds so far, according to program staff. Edwards said the majority obtained bachelor's degrees. Some even masters, and a handful of doctorates.

But the effects of being denied a public education for years took a toll on some more than others. Edwards says one applicant who applied this year didn’t know how to write. He could only make an “X” on his application.

“I accepted his X because I knew that was all he could do,” Edwards said.

Edwards says she was able to tailor the scholarship to meet the student’s goal: reading his bible.

“And so if we can get him there, then we have accomplished a lot for him,” Edwards said.

The scholarship committee recently voted to open the fund to new applicants through the end of May. It’s the first time in two years. They wanted to make sure everyone currently in the pipeline would have enough funding to finish their degrees.

There’s still $1 million left in the fund. Woodley says his original idea was for a legacy fund, also open to the children and grandchildren of the students denied an education. But the General Assembly and Attorney General at the time didn’t agree.

“The analogy that was used with me was it was like a traffic accident in which case a parent was killed or injured. The children were not in the car so they can't seek damages,” Woodley said. “But just like in a car accident, the children face the consequences of life without a parent. Or in this case life with parents who had no education.”

The original students who qualify are aging. Woodley says if there’s money left over after they all pass away, the constitutionality of a legacy fund should be revisited. If nothing is done, it’ll eventually revert back to the state general fund.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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