Hidden figures and facets of Black history
Cainan Townsend took those interested on a tour of Black history in Farmville and Prince Edward County that is far less familiar to many people.
Townsend, who is the director of education and outreach at the Robert Russa Moton Museum, shared a presentation via Zoom on Tuesday, Feb. 16, evening titled “Ely to Griffin: The Forgotten Black History of Farmville.”
It was the first in a two-part series studying the history of Farmville. Townsend spent a notable portion of his time chronicling the story of Israel Hill.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources notes Israel Hill is a piece of land in Farmville settled in 1810-11 by approximately 90 formerly enslaved persons who received freedom and 350 acres from Judith Randolph under the will of her husband, Richard Randolph Jr., the cousin of Thomas Jefferson.
Townsend noted that Randolph owned slaves, but he also believed slavery was an awful monstrosity, and he believed African Americans and white people could coexist peacefully. In 1795 when he was 25 years old, he wrote a will, which reflected his beliefs, and ultimately died the next year at 26.
“In that will, he promises to free his enslaved persons, over a hundred or so people, he planned to do that, as well as give them each 25 to 50 acres of land,” Townsend said, noting the 25-50 acres went to the heads of families.
Townsend highlighted details both of the “Israelites” that lived in Israel Hill and of the Prince Edward County they were a part of in the early 1800s.
The Israelites started to invest in the land and ran successful businesses. They defended their rights in court, sometimes even filing lawsuits against white people, and they were winning in Prince Edward courts.
The Israelites had working relationships with the white community, and some even became river boatmen, which was a highly respected position.
Also, Israel Hill had guns.
There was peaceful coexistence at that time.
Townsend emphasized how the positive treatment of African Americans in these examples is so different from what would be expected of the time period.
He did also point out some lesser known negative details present in Prince Edward County’s history, including the fact that lynching did occur in the county. He specifically pointed to an instance from 1888 in which Archer Cook was lynched after being accused of assaulting a white woman.
“Radical change creates radical change,” Townsend said, emphasizing what proved to be a notable theme during his presentation.
He briefly alluded to how the county closed its public schools from 1959-64 in opposition to desegregation, mentioning it in the context of how Griffin Boulevard in downtown Farmville has changed.
“From what I can tell, I think it was 1983 when it changed from Ely Street to Griffin Boulevard,” he said. “Griffin Boulevard was the Harlem of Farmville — it was Black-owned businesses, it was Black-owned homes. It was a central point of the Black African American community here in Prince Edward County, as well as all that part of campus kind of from the library over on up here to Moton.
“The schools close and a lot of people leave, and what I want to say about the people who left is that it wasn’t our poor, it wasn’t our uneducated people who were leaving because they were the ones who couldn’t afford to leave, or didn’t want to leave. It was our educated folks. It was our teachers. It was our nurses. It was our dentists. It was our only doctor. Those are people who left, and with that, a power vacuum of sorts kind of came into play.”
He said a lot of those people left and never came back. A lot of people locked out of schools left to go to school elsewhere. Some of them went on to get college degrees and never came back.
Toward the end of his presentation, Townsend briefly highlighted a few other lesser known historical facts and important people.
Though he grew up in Prince Edward, Townsend said it was not until a guest walked into the Moton Museum one day in 2016 and shared a bit of history that he came to know about the Prince Edward State Park for Negroes that existed from 1950-64.
“We had in Prince Edward County the only state park in Virginia for African Americans,” he said. “Now, this is now Twin Lakes State Park. But Prince Edward State Park for Negroes, we had people coming from all over the state of Virginia — doctors, lawyers, nurses. This was a luxury-type deal, so you had people coming into Farmville, into Prince Edward County from all over the state and really in some cases all up the east coast. There were people coming from all over the place because Prince Edward State Park for Negroes was the spot.”
He said the park ended in 1964 due to the Civil Rights Act.
Townsend also offered up a short list of “Farmville Hidden Figures.”
• Tazewell Branch was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1874-77, one of the first African American delegates. He also owned the land that the Beulah African Methodist Episcopal Church is located on at 115 S. Main St. and was instrumental in setting up the church.
• His daughter, Mary E. Branch, was also an important figure. The name of the building that is across the street from Moton is Mary E. Branch Elementary, a former Farmville elementary school for African American students.
Her name was chosen because she was the first African American female college president, leading what is now known as Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas.
The first Moton High School, what is now the Moton Museum, was once a school known as Mary E. Branch No. 2 after the new high school was built in 1953 and assumed the Moton name.
• Robert Russa Moton was Booker T. Washington’s No. 2 guy at what is now known as Tuskegee University and eventually succeeded him as the head of Tuskegee. Moton also came back to Virginia and did a lot of work with what is now known as Hampton University.
He was a huge proponent of African Americans developing trade skills.
He also advised five or six U.S. presidents.
“He was the original kind of diversity committee,” Townsend said.
• Dorothy Vaughan was one of the lead characters in the popular 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” She was a former Robert Russa Moton High School math teacher who later became a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mathematician, helping send a man to the moon.
• James Maceo West, who turned 90 this year, was born and raised in Prince Edward County and graduated from Moton High School in 1949. He has long been interested in technology.
“In 1962, James Maceo West created and got the patent for an electric transducer, which is today found in 90% of microphones that we use, and he has since gone on to get a bunch of other patents,” Townsend said. “He’s very highly respected in the tech world.”
• Robin Yvette Allen is a rapper known as The Lady of Rage, who has been an artist on Death Row Records and has been on TV shows and in movies. She has returned to Farmville, where she lives now.
Jonathan Page, director of multicultural affairs at Longwood University, said the second part of Tuesday’s program, which will focus on the history of Farmville and how its impact on the present can be measured and addressed, will take place Wednesday, Feb. 24.
For more information about it, contact Quincy Goodine, Longwood assistant director of leadership and multicultural affairs, at firstname.lastname@example.org.