Virginia’s Buckingham County may be home to famed African-American scholar and Father of Black History Carter G. Woodson, but Professor Phyllis Slade Martin, associate director of African-American Studies at George Mason University, is more interested in the history made by Buckingham’s lesser-known black residents.
“We need to hear the voices of not only extraordinary people,” says Slade Martin, who directs GMU’s African-American Studies Research and Resource Center, “but we need to hear the voices of ordinary people [too].”
“Separate and Unequal in Buckingham County: An Exhibition on Segregation & Desegregation in Virginia,” co-curated by Slade Martin and on display at GMU’s Johnson Center Gallery through Feb. 16, tells the history of segregation and desegregation in the Virginia county roughly 150 miles southwest of Fairfax. It weaves excerpts from interviews with former students, teachers, and administrators together with photographs and artifacts from county schools. The exhibition covers the long period of pre–Brown v. Board of Education segregation, the decade and a half of resistance the county mounted after that landmark ruling, and Buckingham’s eventual integration, in 1970.
Buckingham Training School, the county’s first African-American high school, opened in 1924. Former student Elizabeth Harris, now 78, recalls in exhibition materials that the wood-framed, four-room building “seemed like a mansion” compared with previous facilities. “We’d been in…a small one-room school and coming into Buckingham Training School was real exciting”—even with secondhand desks and equipment.
A fellow student, now-80-year-old Florence West, remembers that when the county’s school board refused to fund buses for black children, she “walked 8 miles” to get to school and 8 back. “That’s 16 miles a day.”
“Separate and Unequal” is the first major offering of GMU’s Lost and Found Stories project—an oral-history project Slade Martin oversees. The 48-year-old Glenn Dale, Md., resident originally planned to focus on the lives of African-Americans in Northern Virginia, where GMU is based. But in 2000, a colleague told her about Buckingham Training School Commemoration Inc., a group seeking to build a community center in Buckingham County, and Slade Martin changed her focus.
“I decided…because many of these people were in their late 60s, 70s, up to their 90s, that it was important for me to capture their stories [now],” she says.
Thanks to a 2001 grant for $3,000 from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy (matched by GMU), she and a graduate student trekked to rural Buckingham County to interview teachers, administrators, and students—17 in all—about their lives before and during the transition from segregation to integration.
The exhibition didn’t really start to come together until last year, when a second grant sponsored a string of trips back to Buckingham County, where Slade Martin and Wendi Manuel-Scott—the show’s co-curator and an assistant professor at GMU—did further research, including tracking down primary-source documents.
They also procured artifacts for the exhibition, such as a brick pillar from the Buckingham Training School and photos of its graduating classes. George Frank Harris, past principal of Carter G. Woodson High School (an African-American school opened in Buckingham County in 1954) donated a 1959 track trophy he rescued after it had been tossed out during the school’s 1970 integration.
This is the first exhibition the pair has curated together, says Slade Martin, noting that it was a challenge to distill the information into a museum-friendly format—and not simply because there were plenty of thoughtful reminiscences to go around. “[A]s historians we’re accustomed to writing long papers, and so to write one paragraph is very tedious, very difficult,” she says.
The professors want to create a scholarly article out of the information, but for now they’re busy with the exhibition.
“We’re exhaling,” Slade Martin says, laughing.