New role for historic site

Moton Museum wants to become an educational resource on civil rights

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Print this page by Robin Farmer

When Lacy Ward envisions the Robert Russa Moton Museum a decade from now, he sees the Farmville nonprofit institution serving as a resource for teachers and students around the globe.

“In 10 years, Moton will be recognized for having created the nation’s leading content-delivery platform for classroom and individual study of civil rights in education,” says Ward, director of the museum that was once an all-black high school.

A student walkout more than 60 years ago to protest the school’s conditions led to Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. It was one of five lawsuits included in the pivotal Brown v. Board of Education case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools are unconstitutional
Working with scholars, instructors and content-delivery professionals, Moton will provide “a personally engaging and educationally rewarding critique of the era and will equip Americans with the tools needed to address contemporary issues,” says Ward, the museum’s director since 2008.

He hopes the facility will become a civil-rights destination that includes an institute to train civics teachers, a webinar series on topics related to civics education and the civil rights movement, and a digital archive and fellowship program for scholarly research.  Plans call for Moton to feature a six-gallery permanent exhibit and dining facilities for an estimated 35,000 visitors a year.

The museum had 1,200 visitors during the first four months of 2012 and averaged 5,000 annually before closing for construction last year. In September, the museum opened the first phase of its permanent exhibit. The nonprofit is within $1 million of its fundraising goal of $3.4 million for the final five exhibit galleries. If pending applications are approved this summer, work will be completed in summer 2013.

To help Ward with his vision, a group of business leaders and educators are pitching in by reviewing the museum’s mission and goals and cultivating prospective board members who can help redefine the role of the historic civil rights site.

The first of three meetings of the working group was held in April. A second meeting will be held in September and the last in November. 

Participants left the first meeting saying they are optimistic about the museum’s new initiative.

“Our discussion was vigorous and enlightening, and I’m sure we can take some significant steps toward raising Moton’s national profile,” says Charles D. Ross, dean of the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences at Longwood University. “The story that Moton tells clearly shows what engaged and passionate citizens can accomplish, and I’m delighted to be able to play a part in bringing that story to a wider audience.”

Wallace Stettinius, former chairman and CEO of Cadmus Communications Corp., says the group made progress in its first session. The museum really needs “a diversity of power and that’s what we have to figure out and help [Lacy] organize,” says Stettinius, who now teaches at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Virginia Commonwealth University’s business school.

For John A. Stokes, assisting with the museum’s strategic planning process is deeply personal. One of the original plaintiffs in the Davis case, he helped lead 440 students out of the overcrowded school in April 1951.
The walkout protested the school’s deplorable conditions, which included tar-paper shack classrooms where student wore coats to keep warm. The museum plans to replicate those shacks.

Ward’s plan to use the student walkout and eventual five-year student lockout from the county public schools as teaching tools will “bring recognition to the people who fought to initiate a movement,” says Stokes, who lives in Maryland.

There are still too many people who refuse to discuss this painful period of history, says Stokes, who did not talk about his experience publicly until 1995. “The elevation of the museum to another level needs to be done so the whole world knows what took place. I do believe there was divine intervention. We couldn’t have done it ourselves,” he says.

The working group’s charge includes assessing the potential for the museum to “be competitive in the civil rights-era heritage tourism segment,” Ward says. The working group will help to recruit a board of trustees that “will help us get into the game.”

The meeting pleased Ward, who called the group’s support for the museum far-reaching.  “Their collective passion encourages me,” he says. 

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