‘I will not be part of the problem’: Longwood student takes a stand

Published 10:02 am Sunday, December 31, 2023

For many Longwood students, Prince Edward’s consequential civil rights history, including the 5-year closing of the county’s public schools in response to court-ordered desegregation, is something they learn about only after arriving on campus. 

But not Jocelyn Watson — her family lived that history. 

Watson’s paternal grandparents were denied access to education by the closing of Prince Edward County schools from 1959 to 1964 — part of the Massive Resistance movement that followed the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. 

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So, for Watson, who grew up in the Pamplin area of the county, it was an especially meaningful full-circle moment for her and her family to get the call from the president’s office recently that she had been selected to receive this year’s Moton Legacy Scholarship. Created by Longwood’s governing Board of Visitors in 2014, the scholarship is among the university’s highest honors. It covers full tuition for a year for a student advancing in a contemporary context the ideals espoused by those who fought for equal opportunity in Longwood’s home communities of Farmville and Prince Edward during the civil rights era.

“I know the history, and I tell it every time I get a chance,” Watson said.

Longwood student looks back

Her grandfather, Lewis M. Watson, was 9 years old when the schools closed in 1959. He eventually went to Kentucky and earned a GED certificate, which he later learned was not the same as a diploma. His father was a sharecropper, and he moved his family from Pamplin to the Prospect area of Prince Edward when he learned that the white farmer he was sharecropping with had been instrumental in keeping the schools closed.

Her grandmother, Arlene Marshall Watson, was 5 years old when the schools closed. She was the youngest of 11 children, and the family did not have relatives in nearby communities or out of state where they could send their children for schooling during the closure, as some other families in Prince Edward did. When the schools reopened she was 9 and in the first grade.

Jocelyn Watson’s father, Lewis A. Watson Sr., recalled that he first learned of his parents’ struggle with getting an education when he was in the first grade.

“I watched my mother cry because she couldn’t help me with my homework,” Watson Sr. said. “From that day to this one I vowed that I would never let anybody keep me from going where I want to go in life. That’s the fire that’s been burning inside of me since that day. I shared that with my children and made sure they understood the history that happened to our family.”

At Longwood, Watson is driven by a desire to help people and is passionate about effecting change and giving back to her community. She holds leadership roles on campus and is active in several student organizations. She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and serves as the chaplain for B.A.S.I.C. Gospel Choir. She also is a member of C.H.A.N.G.E. (Community Humanity Allyship Networking Grace Equity) — a cohort of groups supporting minority students on campus that seeks to foster change — and serves as the group’s representative to SGA. In her spare time, she volunteers at the local Farmville Area Community Emergency Service (FACES) food pantry.

“I’ve always said I will not be part of the problem in Prince Edward County,” she said. “I will be one who helps to alleviate the problem in any way I can.”

The Lockout Generation 

Watson is not the only student on Longwood’s campus with a deep personal connection to the lockout generation. Martha Bailey Brown enrolled as a freshman this fall after receiving a Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship — 64 years after she was locked out of the eighth grade in Prince Edward County.

Cameron Patterson, vice president for student affairs and senior partner for strategic initiatives at the Moton Museum, said Watson stands out for her work ethic and desire to be a change maker.

“She strives to promote the ideals of citizen leadership through her scholarship, service and involvement,” Patterson said. “Moton’s partnership with Longwood provides a unique opportunity to enhance the university’s mission of shaping citizen leaders using the lessons of Prince Edward County citizens as an example. Jocelyn has firsthand knowledge of those lessons from her family. We look forward to the contributions that she will continue to make in her community after she graduates.”

TRANSLATING INTO A PROFESSIONAL CAREER 

The psychology major plans to parlay her desire to help others into a professional career, aspiring to become a counselor either in the mental health or education field.

“I want to be able to help others and be instrumental in other people’s lives,” she said. “I’ve always been that friend that people go to and feel comfortable talking to.”

She is following in her mother’s footsteps by majoring in psychology. Watson’s parents met when her mother, Jennifer Callaham Watson, was a student at Longwood in the mid-1990s. They got married at the end of Jennifer’s sophomore year, and a few years later she took eight months off from college after Jocelyn was born. She finished her degree in psychology in 2001.

When the younger Watson decided to transfer to Longwood in the fall of 2022, her mother jokingly told her things might seem familiar. “I said, ‘You’ve been here before because I carried you around campus in my belly,’” Jennifer Watson recalled with a laugh.

Now Jocelyn Watson has classes with some of the same psychology professors who taught her mother more than two decades ago, including Dr. Chris Bjornsen and Dr. David Carkenord, as well as Dr. Jennifer Apperson in the counseling program. After beginning her college career at a private institution, Watson earned an associate’s degree from Central Virginia Community College before transferring to Longwood last year. She said she very much feels like she ended up where she was supposed to be.

“This is my forever home” she said. “I’ve met so many great people and created lasting relationships and friendships, both with my professors and my peers.”

Jennifer Watson said she can see the outsized influence that Jocelyn’s paternal grandparents, who still live in Pamplin, have had in her daughter’s life.

Her grandfather went on to earn a GED diploma and a college degree, which led to a career in ministry. After the schools reopened, her grandmother struggled through the rest of her school years and never went to college. Their three sons all have college degrees.

“Jocelyn is very close to her grandmother,” Jennifer Watson said. “A lot of what she does now, in trying to help people and be an advocate, that comes from what she saw with her grandmother.”

Lewis A. Watson Sr. said his parents’ experiences led him to instill in his children a tenacity and an “always do the best you can” attitude — and to encourage them to seek out every opportunity.

“I’m proud of Jocelyn and proud that she was chosen for this scholarship,” he said. “It’s kind of coming full circle in that her grandparents lost out on a lot of opportunities because of the school closing. Now their grandchildren are the recipients of things they possibly would have gotten if school had not closed. My mother might have gone and finished college. Life would have just been different, period.”