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Moton Museum Honors Civic Unity

FARMVILLE – The Robert Russa Moton Museum celebrated “community” during a banquet this month that saw a cousin of Barbara Johns calling the museum a symbol of America.

“This museum is the result of a community effort of diverse groups recognizing a need,” said Essence magazine founder Edward Lewis, “and joining forces to realize a dream to fruition. It will stand as an example of what can be achieved when differences are secondary to the common good. It symbolized all that America is about-unity in diversity-and it will serve to remind us to value our history, to learn from it and to move forward.”

The New York-born, Bronx-raised Lewis traveled to Farmville each summer for 10 years as soon as schools closed for summer vacation, riding a bus to the farm of his grandparents, Mary and Robert Croner.

There he joined his cousins for a vacation that also saw its hours of hard work. “Side by side we toiled in the blazing Virginia heat in the tobacco field,” Lewis told the packed banquet held at Longwood University.

“Our grandmother Croner used to say, and I quote her, 'hard work never killed nobody. Among those cousins were Barbara Rose Johns, her sister Joan, brothers Ernest, Roderick, or 'Roddy,' and Robert 'Kit,'” Lewis recalled.

Barbara Rose Johns led the April 23, 1951 student strike at R. R. Moton High School against separate and unequal facilities for black students, which became a legal fight against segregation and was incorporated into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregated public schools in the nation.

That student action made the former school, now museum, a National Historic Landmark and, in the eyes of many, the birthplace of the civil rights movement. The student action in Farmville came more than four years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama.

“The dictionary defines community as a group of people having common interest living in one locality. This evening,” Lewis said during his keynote speech, “we celebrate the importance of community, particularly this small but very strong and united community of Farmville.”

Lewis, currently senior advisor for Solera Capital, a New York-based private equity investment firm and the chair and co-founder of Latina Media Venturs, LLC, a premier integrated media company serving the growing Hispanic market in the US, said his grandparents' home has been maintained and is the meeting place for family reunions, and that many family members have second homes in Prince Edward.

He also spoke of struggles that continue in the nation. “We see many of our brothers and sisters in peril because of a darkened economy. We witness cuts made to education, the foundation by which we long to see our children grow and prosper. And we hear the call of freedom still ringing through the voices of the forgotten-those who are homeless, in prison, or estranged from the healthcare they need to survive.

“But my trip to Farmville, my trip home, would be in vain if I did not see the hope that stands on the horizon. I speak,” Lewis said, “of hope that comes not just from a community that has grown, nurtured, and supported the roots by which this museum was founded. I see it in the faces of each and every one of you gathered here this evening. Your presence affirms the very reason we are all here tonight-to celebrate the achievements of our past and to face the uncertainties of our future.”

This is being done, Lewis said, through a community effort he described as “bound by the spirit of Barbara Johns and the many thousands of our ancestors who fought to bring us this day. Moreover, I cannot help but feel the collective responsibility we have to preserve our community's legacy-the critical stand this small farming town took against a culture where the color of your skin so acutely determined the limits of your future.”

Failing to do so, he said, would mean failing “our own children, our grandchildren, and future generations who will have no clear understanding of the courage and integrity with which Barbara Rose Johns and hundreds of other young students undertook the fight against discrimination 60 years ago…

“I have faith that the community of Farmville,” he concluded, “will never let that happen.”