Last week I attended the annual meeting of the Virginia Forum, “an organization for scholars, teachers, writers, museum curators, historic site interpreters, activists, librarians and all those interested in Virginia history and culture to share their knowledge, research and experiences.”
I have attended the forum many of its 14 years because of my interest in Virginia history and because so many of the issues on which I work in the legislature can best be understood in their historical context. Furthermore, many of the experiences at the forum, including the papers that are presented, are fascinating and stimulating.
The forum meets at a different location each year with most meetings being held at a college or university and takes advantage of the uniqueness of the region where the meeting is held. While the meeting this year was held at Longwood University, the opening session was next door at the Robert Russell Moton Museum, the National Historic Landmark Robert Russell Moton High School, the site of a 1951 student strike led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns which became one of the cases decided in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education to end school segregation.
Just being at the site was meaningful, but having a session feature a panel of adults who were living in Prince Edward County during the five-year period (1959-1964) that Prince Edward County closed its public schools to resist desegregation was even more telling to understand the depths to which racism dominated the region. There were many other incidents of racial bigotry and hate throughout the Southside region and other parts of the state that linger in the background of dealing with the racism of today.
Recommended reading from the forum is “Israel on the Appomattox,” a 2005 book by Professor Marvin Patrick Ely of William and Mary that won the Bancroft Prize and was featured in the New York Times Book Review and Atlantic Monthly Editors’ Choice.
“Israel on the Appomattox” tells the story of liberated blacks and the community they formed, called Israel Hill, in Prince Edward County. There, ex-slaves established farms, navigated the Appomattox River and became entrepreneurs. Free blacks and whites did business with one another, sued each other, worked side by side for equal wages, joined forces to found a Baptist congregation, moved west together and occasionally settled down as husband and wife. Slavery cast its grim shadow, even over the lives of the free.
The book is a moving story of hardship and hope that defies what many expected of the Old South, yet the forces of racism and white supremacy overcame their efforts and continued to perpetuate the beliefs of the day that black people could not succeed on their own. These ideas continue to cast a shadow on racial issues today.
A realistic understanding of the challenges of today is best considered within some historical context — not the romantic visions of the Old South that have been perpetuated in Virginia and other places for too long. How we got to where we are can help us live together without the myths of race from the past.