Longwood U., home of VP face-off, addresses painful civil rights history ahead of debate


Longwood University, located in Farmville, Virginia, is home to this year's vice presidential debate, which takes place at 9 p.m. on Tuesday. But it was also the setting for one of the civil rights era's more epic battles over school desegregation.

On April 23, 1951, black students at nearby Robert Russa Moton High School in the city staged a walk-out to protest the "deplorable" conditions at the school, which was so overcrowded that some students were housed in paper shacks that leaked when it rained and were heated by pot-bellied stoves. The school didn't have a gym, cafeteria or science labs.  

With help from the local NAACP chapter, these students became part of the class-action lawsuit known as Brown v. the Board of Education. The landmark case reached the Supreme Court, and in 1954, it ruled segregation based on race unconstitutional.

"The schoolchild origins of the [Brown v. Board] lawsuit were lost as well on nearly [everyone] outside Prince Edward County," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters, an exhaustive history of the civil rights movement. "The idea that non-adults of any race might play a leading role in political events had simply failed to register on anyone."

The significance of the moment was also lost on Longwood as an institution. Short of hosting then-attorney general Robert Kennedy in 1964 to discuss racial discrimination in the area, weeks before the court-order to re-open the schools, Longwood University was largely silent on the matter. Not only was the university silent, but it was displacing local black residents as it expanded its campus in the early 1960s, according to its own accounting of the time.

"Longwood did not live up to its ideals, in my opinion, during that time, did not speak out in support of desegregation," the school's president, W. Taylor Reveley IV, recently told The 74, an education-based website that supports charter schools and is critical of unions.

Thomas J.O'Halloran, /Civil Rights Digital Library

While Longwood stayed silent and worked its institutional racism behind the scenes, the public school district around it took a different but equally harmful approach. After the Supreme Court's ruling, several Southern school districts balked at federal mandates to change. But few went as far as Farmville's Prince Edward County, whose board of supervisors shut down its public schools entirely rather than allow black students to attend racially integrated classrooms. 

The schools stayed closed for five years until another lawsuit, Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward, forced them to reopen in 1964. But during the time the schools were closed, activists, educators, and some lawmakers banded together to establish so-called "Free Schools," which educated black students when their local public schools refused to do the job.

In recent years, Longwood has expressed remorse for standing on the wrong side of history. In 2014, the school's board of trustees passed a resolution expressing "profound regret" for its actions.

"While many individual members of the Longwood community spoke and acted bravely in support of the inarguable principle of equal protection under the law and education opportunity for all, as an institution Longwood failed to stand up publicly for these ideals," the resolution read. 

The school also established the Moton Legacy scholarship program for students "with a demonstrated commitment to the cause of equality of opportunity in education." It's unclear how much the scholarship, established in 2014, is worth.

As this year's vice presidential candidates take the stage in one of our modern era's most racially contentious national elections, this is the history that will serve as the night's backdrop.