More than 2,000 black children were robbed of an education during Virginia’s Massive Resistance campaign against school integration. Ken Woodley wants to give it back.
Ken Woodley, author of The Road to Healing, will be speaking at Chop Suey bookstore this afternoon.
The Road to Healing centers around Woodley’s first-person account of the political struggle for, and subsequent passage of, the first Civil-Rights era reparations in U.S. history. The project aims to make amends for Virginia’s leadership and participation in Massive Resistance beginning in the mid-1950s. As part of this movement, Prince Edward County shut down every public school for five years beginning in 1959 — effectively robbing more than 2,000 black children and about 200 white children of an education.
“I had the idea for the state to create a scholarship fund to give that educational opportunity back, realizing of course that those individuals were no longer children and that they were in their fifties,” Woodley said.
None of us are responsible for the past, but what we are responsible for is our moment in time, the moment in time we share. We need to do the most we can, the best we can for each other. If there is a wound, and we have a way to bring healing to it, I think it’s our moral and civic responsibility to do so.
Woodley said the idea for the scholarship fund came to him on his morning drive to his job as editor of the Farmville Herald — a publication which once staunchly opposed integration of schools — back in 2003. He heard on the radio that the Virginia General Assembly was debating a resolution of “profound regret” for the state’s role in Massive Resistance. At the same time, he recalled a discussion by the Prince Edward County School Board about awarding honorary high school diplomas to those who had been locked out of schools during Massive Resistance.
“Those two discussions flowed into one in my head just immediately,”
Woodley said. “I just had a complete full-blown idea for a reparations program that would take an individual from GED all the way up to a masters or a doctorate degree if that was the journey that they wished.”
Woodley began his advocacy for the scholarship that very day. Throughout the legislative battle that ensued from February of 2003 to June of 2004, Woodley kept a diary of every interaction he had with every elected official and Civil Rights icon he spoke to.
“I kept every single email,” he said. “I just kept everything. I put it all in boxes that I marked ‘Brown Scholarship crusade, never ever throw away.’”
The initial plan, Woodley said, was to eventually donate all these records to a museum. That changed in 2015, when his 36-year employment with The Farmville Herald ended with its sale and substantial downsizing.
“I felt that I would have to be the one to point the finger at one, possibly two people who would have to be downsized,” Woodley said. “It was terrible to face that decision. I could not bring myself to do that to my colleagues.”
So, Woodley “downsized” himself, hoping that his salary would be enough to prevent further budget cuts. With an unanticipated amount of free time on his hands, Woodley decided to chronicle the narrative of the Brown Scholarship fund.
Woodley enters the story in 2003, but it really begins on April 23, 1951: with sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns, who led a student walkout in protest of segregation at Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County. Barbara Johns’ case was eventually taken up by the NAACP and Oliver Hill, and became one of the five cases reviewed the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. Just as Prince Edward County was the epicenter of Massive Resistance, it was also the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.
Today, 250 individuals benefit from the Brown Scholarship program, but that didn’t always look like it would become a reality. The scholarship required legislation to create the program and a budget amendment to allocate its funding. At first, the Virginia House of Delegates voted to create the scholarship program — but with no funding.
“The scholarship is inherently the money!” Woodley said. “A scholarship without the money is a lie.”
Then, the Virginia Senate voted to allocate $100,000 over two years to the scholarship fund, a far cry from the requested $2 million.
“Nobody believed people would use it,” Woodley explained.
In the end, half of the funding for the scholarship program was financed by billionaire John Kluge. The other half passed through the General Assembly on Veto Day of 2004.
“There was really no turn that GA politicians couldn’t twist, no twist they couldn’t turn,” Woodley said. “Until the very end, when it’s just the bottom of the 10th inning, it came to be.”
According to Woodley, it all would have been worth it if even one person received an education they wouldn’t have otherwise without the Brown Scholarships. He emphasized the need for future reparations, including what he calls a “domestic Marshall Plan,” would include “significant investments in education and infrastructure and sustained massive investments in urban and rural communities with significant African American populations.”
Woodley says the story of the Brown Scholarships should serve as a model for the country, especially given the rise of white supremacy.
“The full arc of Prince Edward’s story of racial reconciliation is one that I believe should and will give hope to the nation,” he said. “And God we need it so bad, more than I could have ever imagined.”
Woodley turned his records of the fight to create and fund the Brown Scholarship into The Road To Healing: A Civil Rights Reparations Story In Prince Edward County, Virginia. He’ll be reading from the book tonight at Chop Suey Books, located at 2913 W. Cary St. in Carytown, beginning at 6 PM. Copies of the book will be for sale at the event, and Woodley will be available for signings afterward. For more info, click here.