The mention of the all-American road trip conjures images of adventure and family bonding, but if you are headed to the Virginia’s Crossroads region, it can provide you and your passengers with a wealth of information and the opportunity to learn about our country’s not-so-distant past.
The Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail (CRIEHT) encompasses 15 counties and 53 historic sites all located in South Central Virginia. While some of the sites are open to the public, others are roadside markers commemorating the historic events that took place during the Civil Rights Movement. All sites are a part of a very specific story—how students, teachers, school administrators, and community members played a vital role in changing America for the better.
One of the largest sites on the CRIEHT is the Robert Russa Moton Museum, housed in the former Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville. The building was constructed in 1939 as Prince Edward County’s all-Black public high school. Originally built for just 150 students, the enrollment quickly grew to more than 450 students.
In 1951, the crowded, inadequate, and unsafe school conditions led 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns to take a heroic stand against the county’s policy of segregating schools. She led the nation’s first student walk-out and made the small town of Farmville an early battleground in the fight for Civil Rights.
Three years later, the Supreme Court would rule racial segregation unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. “Every community has a story,” said Cameron Patterson, executive director of Robert Russa Moton Museum, “And our story in Farmville is of how they navigated the Civil Rights Movement.”
Patterson said the thought of young Barbara Rose Johns mustering the courage to take such an unprecedented stand gives him goosebumps, but he encourages museum visitors to take in other sites along the CRIEHT as well. “Churches were instrumental in bringing the community together over this issue,” he said, “Just days after the student walk-out, the NAACP was holding meetings at the First Baptist Church.” Like many of the other churches on the CRIEHT, the First Baptist Church of Farmville still has an active congregation.
In addition to schools and churches, road-trippers can pay homage to Carter Godwin Woodson, the Harvard-educated scholar and historian who founded Negro History Week—now Black History Month—in 1926. Woodson was born in Buckingham County, Virginia in 1875. His birthplace is a monument on the CRIEHT.
Need to stretch your legs? Consider a short hike at Twin Lakes State Park, located near Farmville. In 1950, the former Prince Edward Lake Recreation Area became the Prince Edward Lake State Park for Negroes. At the time, it was the eighth-largest state park in Virginia and the only one open to people of color. Now, of course, it is open to everyone.
Undeniably, one of the best aspects of any self-guided driving tour is that YOU set the pace. The CRIEHT is not linear or chronological, allowing the driver to start and end at any point. You may decide to visit only a short segment of the trail—or you might want to make the CRIEHT in a longer trip. As Patterson advised, you can start your journey in Washington, D.C., tour the CRIEHT, and then head further south to the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC.
For more information, visit vacrossroads.com.
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