Virginia marks historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling

Posted at 10:45 AM, May 18, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. -- Friday marked 70 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme and a museum dedicated to telling part of the story of that case is commemorating the anniversary this weekend.

The Brown decision was made up of five lawsuits, including one that originated in Prince Edward County, Virginia when, in 1951, students at Robert Russa Moton High School staged a walkout in protest of poor conditions and overcrowding at the Black school. The walkout was led by 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns.

The walkout eventually turned into a lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board, and became a part of the large Brown lawsuit.

The school eventually became the Moton Museum.

"Part of that significance is that you're talking for years before Rosa Parks in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, right? You're talking Martin Luther King, Jr. is still in a college classroom at that point in time," said museum Executive Director Cainan Townsend. "And so, the students really didn't have a lot of examples to draw from, right? They were, kind of, trailblazers in a way before kind of the contemporary civil rights movement as we identify it kind of really would begin."

Townsend said about 10 years ago when he was an intern at the museum, he discovered some of his relatives took part in the walkout.

"I see three names on the list: John Townsend, Mildred Townsend, and Arlene Townsend. Then I was like, 'Huh, that's a very familiar name.' Especially Mildred, who I knew before she passed. The other two had passed before I was born. But, after consulting with the family tree, I realized that, yes, those were my two great aunts, Mildred and Arlene, along with my great-grandfather, John Townsend, which was just very surreal to find out, I had no idea."

Looking back on 70 years since the ruling, Townsend said it feels like it happened yesterday and long ago at the same time.

"There are certain kinds of aspects of the Brown decision that I think, when we look back on it, we asked ourselves if we ever fully achieved them we might say, 'We still got some work to do.' But, that's okay. Because, you know, those students in those communities back during that time period, you know, had very low reason to believe that Brown would be successful based on previous court precedent and they defied all the odds and were successful. So, that kind of gives me hope for the future," Townsend said.

Townsend said the museum will have longer hours this weekend as they commemorate not only Brown but also the 60th anniversary of the Griffin v. Prince Edward County decision.

He said after Brown, Virginia became home to a movement known as "Massive Resistance" where policies were enacted to oppose school desegregation. Townsend said in Prince Edward County, that led to the public schools being closed in 1959 and remaining closed for five years as funding was directed to private, segregated schools.

To mark both anniversaries, Townsend said Moton is partnering with Longwood University during graduation ceremonies on Sunday to present honorary juris doctor (J.D.) degrees to students involved in the 1951 walkout and Davis lawsuit, students impacted by the Prince Edward school closures, and people denied admission or discouraged from applying to Longwood based on race.

"Because it really was the individuals in these categories in particular who really are the reason that we can have funded public schools today -- in a lot of ways, a lot of varieties. And so, you know, we want to demonstrate our gratitude and really help a lot of these folks smell the flowers, because often we name things posthumously and things of that nature, which obviously has its place, too," said Townsend. "But, how great is it that we have so many of these individuals who will be present and able to receive those honorary juris doctorates here among us."

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