Moton Museum moves forward with renovation plans

Published 12:30 am Wednesday, May 8, 2024

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The Robert Russa Moton Museum will be undergoing several renovations over the next few months. 

The 85-year-old building will be getting an upgrade to its parking lot, education center, and hvac units. The upgrades coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Brown v Board of Education decision. 

The museum was awarded a $500,000 federal earmark grant in 2021 to renovate the facility. Moton Museum Executive Director Cainan Townsend said the hvac unit repairs will come first, and then they will move to lighting and landscaping in the parking lot. The education center, or the Tar Paper Shack, will be renovated depending on how much funding is left after the first two projects. 

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“I want to say that by the end of the year the lights will be done,” said Townsend. “Then anything with the shack will require a kind of architectural drawings and things of that nature which we did budget for, but we’re trying to knock out one project before getting to the next one.” 

Townsend said renovating the building can be complex. The museum was built in 1939 and has a protective status as a historic landmark. Townsend said they have to manage technological advances while maintaining historic integrity. 

“That’s part of the reason it’s taken us a while to get some of the earmark stuff going is because we have to get those approvals at multiple levels before making substantive changes,” said Townsend. 

“If we need to do any drilling or if we’re making a change to our permanent exhibit, and it requires any kind of construction or a power saw, then that’s something we’d have to check with the state to make sure that we could do that and maintain some kind of protective status,” said Townsend. 

Moton Museum helps with tribute

While the renovations are happening, the museum will still be open and honoring the 70th anniversary of Brown vs Board, coming up on Friday, May 17. Museum staff will also be part of a project for Longwood University’s commencement ceremony. On May 19, people meeting one of three criteria will be given honorary Juris Doctor degrees. 

“Either strikers from 1951 or plaintiffs in Davis or Brown v Board, those who were locked out of schools between 1959 and 1964, and then a third group of individuals who would have been either denied admission to Longwood or discouraged from applying to Longwood on the basis of race,” said Townsend. 

Joining Longwood President Taylor Reveley IV on the stage will be a man who played a key role in Prince Edward’s Civil Rights fight. L. Francis “Skip” Griffin Jr. was one of the lead plaintiffs in the case that came after Brown v. Board of Education. 

Griffin’s father, the Rev. L. Francis Griffin was a mentor and supporter of Barbara Rose Johns and the other students in that 1951 strike at Moton High. He helped connect them with NAACP attorney Oliver Hill, which led to the legal case being filed. And after Prince Edward County’s response, he filed his own lawsuit. 

Prince Edward County’s Board of Supervisors decided in June 1959 to not appropriate any funding at all for the school system, rather than integrate. That meant all public schools in the county had to close for what eventually became a five-year period. 

Prince Edward gave tuition grants to students, instead of opening schools, to be used at private schools. But there were no private schools in the region that allowed Black students, so from 1959 to 1963, Black children in Prince Edward County were left out. 

Griffin’s two children were not allowed to attend any private schools since they were Black. As we mentioned, public schools in Prince Edward were closed at the time and private schools were just that, able to allow or disallow whoever they wanted. And so he filed a lawsuit, challenging the supervisors’ decision. 

For the second time in a decade, Prince Edward County ended up in court. This time, it also went before the U.S. Supreme Court, in the March 1964 Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County case. 

After two months of discussion and debate, the justices ruled Prince Edward’s decision to close all local public schools and provide vouchers for students to attend private school was constitutionally impermissible. 

Now, after decades, that ‘lost generation,’ including ‘Skip’ Griffin, will have their day on stage. And while it’s not physical renovation, it’s still a project that’s taken Townsend and others a while to organize. 

“When I’m not working on the building projects right now, which are numerous, that is what the rest of my energy is going now,” Townsend said.