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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks with students in Prince Edward County, where public schools were closed for five years in opposition to racial integration, in 1960. Prince Edward's Moton Museum — housed in what was once a black public school — is the anchor of a 41-site Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. A conference involving the 14 counties with trail stops takes place in South Boston this Thursday. (Courtesy of Scott L. Henderson Collection, Virginia Union University) / October 18, 2010
In the 1970s, driving up U.S. 360 toward Richmond, a local dad used to proclaim reliably, as he crossed out of Charlotte County: “Prince Edward County! Where they closed the schools rather than integrate!”

His children assumed the buildings were shuttered for a few tense days. They were adults before they learned that Prince Edward closed its schools for five long years. They knew about the Little Rock Nine and the bayonets at Ole Miss. But here at home?

To make sure others don’t live in such ignorance of their ignoble past, and to celebrate the achievements of African-American education in the Virginia of the Jim Crow era (and of woman and Native Americans), in 2004 the non profit Old Dominion Resource Conservation & Development established the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. Managed and marketed by Virginia’s Retreat, a consortium of 14 counties promoting their historical attractions, the trail boasts sites in those localities, including four in Halifax and two in Mecklenburg. Danville, where demonstrations ended in violence, does not have any stops at present.

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Many of the sites depict a past when African-Americans faced either inferior educational resources or, in the case of Prince Edward, a complete lack of access to public education.

Sites are designated by full-color, informative markers, and there’s a map and a website to help navigate. The stops aren’t chronological or linear, so visitors may pick and choose where they go and how long they linger. Visiting all 41 places (and accounting for driving) would take about two days.

Thursday, for the first time, a conference is being held to focus solely on this trail – not its more famous Virginia siblings such as Lee’s Retreat (tracing final days of the Civil War) or The Crooked Road (celebrating Virginia’s mountain music).

The idea: Bring together stakeholders in the venture to pump up both the trail’s regional and national prominence and its potential for attracting money-spending visitors.

In the back of everyone’s mind is the prospect of a national trail; Virginia’s – the first of its kind focusing on the double-helix of civil rights intertwined with education – might serve as a model for the nation if Congress approves a feasibility study of linking civil rights landmarks across the nation – with many, naturally, in the South. (The House has approved the study.)

Thursday’s agenda calls for addresses from U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, State Secretary of Commerce & Trade James Cheng, State Sen. Frank Ruff, Alisa Bailey of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, Virginia’s Retreat President Sherry Swinson and Robert Russa Moton Museum Executive Director Lacy Ward.

Farmville’s Moton Museum is the anchor of the trail – a national landmark that can attract a national audience, “but it doesn’t tell enough of the story,” Ward says, without the other surrounding sites that flesh out the full experience. (A 1951 student-led strike at the school for African Americans “set in motion events that forever changed the landscape of American education, and arguably marked the start of the modern civil rights movement,” in the words of a Washington Post reporter; the resulting case was later folded into the seminal Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit.)

Ward hopes the Thursday conference will shape the trail’s future and garner much-needed momentum.

Swinson is president of the organization that oversees not only this trail but the popular Lee’s Retreat Trail (regarded as an excellent example of a historical trail) and the Wilson-Kautz Trail, both of which explore Civil War events.

The conference, Swinson hopes, “will help bring to light the fact that we have this wonderful trail,” she says, and encourage localities to do all they can to promote their sites and collaborate.

The trail is poised to add more sites soon, as well as unveil a new interactive website that’s “going to have the ‘wow’ factor,” Swinson says.

It’d also be nice to have one’s house in order if and when the national spotlight is turned this way (not that the trail hasn’t already received widespread attention) searching for a blueprint the national trail might emulate: Money could flow down to regional civil rights trails as they link together, bigshots could visit to inspect Southern Virginia, our homegrown expertise could be sought.

But Swinson is also economic developer for Powhatan County, and she’s keen on the trail’s potential for stimulating ailing economies.

Done right, trails can indeed bring a community cash and vitality. A 2008 analysis of the 253-mile Crooked Road found it was raking in about $23 million annually and that the state was reaping about $400,000 in wage and sales-tax benefits for its $70,000 annual investment.

Similarly, the scenic 35-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, one of the best rails-to-trails in the country, attracts an estimated 200,000 users annually. (Technically, the Virginia Creeper is a recreational trail, not to be confused with a historical trail.) The National Park Service operates about 20 historical trails around the U.S., including trails about the Iditarod, Lewis and Clark and the Native Americans’ Trail of Tears.

The Civil Rights in Education’s 14 participating counties vary in their commitment and enthusiasm, say organizers, who hope to sell the trail’s economic and tourism potential: It doesn’t require much of an investment, it doesn’t need a new building and it capitalizes on a heritage that’s already here.

“The sites on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail really are cultural heritage treasures, and this conference will be pivotal in helping preserve, enhance and expand the trail,” said Halifax County’s Catherine Stevens, conference coordinator. “In the same way that the Civil War Trails and the Crooked Road have a very positive economic impact on their respective regions, so do we anticipate the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail will be an economic driver for our region, when it is recognized for its cultural heritage and tourism value.”

The conference is the work of the Robert Russa Moton Museum and Virginia’s Retreat with sponsorship from the Dominion Foundation, The Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, Virginia Tourism Corporation, Moton Museum, Virginia’s Retreat, and the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center. The day runs 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at The Prizery arts center in Downtown South Boston.

Conference registration is $20 and includes lunch. Registration is online at or by contacting Catherine Stevens at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center: catherinestevens or (434) 572-5559. Space is limited.

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