For the Love of One
It is 67 miles from Farmville, Va. to a quiet plot of land in eastern Henrico County. In between, stately pines stand at attention alongside rolling hills of green, and dusty gravel trails lead to nowhere in particular.
The trip along this lonely highway is not a difficult one, nor remarkable. But for a six-year-old girl more than 40 years ago, it was both.
Fate carried her across those 67 miles – or was it hate that pushed her? She came for reasons that she was too young to understand, and because of people who she did not know. It is only 67 miles, this trip, but were it 6,700 miles it could have seemed no farther.
Dozens contributed to her journey, and to the tale that would become hers. Their names are mostly forgotten now, though never known to more than a few. The story they helped create, however, has persevered quietly in the decades since.
It is a story of pain and of frustration, of opportunity and hope. Mostly, though, it is a story of love — one that no one has known in its entirety until now. The year was 1961. Sally Ann Harris was six years old.
A Painful Secret
The fertile farmland and wooded acres of Prince Edward County, Va., hid a secret in the 1950s that the rest of the nation – and indeed, the rest of the world – would learn soon enough.
Blacks and whites in the county greeted each other cordially on the streets and conversed as if they were content with their otherwise separate and unequal lives. Some, however, were not.
One April morning in 1951 at the town’s all-black Robert R. Moton High School, 16-year-old student Barbara Johns decided she’d had enough.
She helped organized a phony assembly, then took the stage and ordered staff members from the building. They complied. One was a young home economics teacher named Hilda Johnson.
Johns and student government president John Stokes then led their classmates from the school and into the streets of Farmville, where they marched in protest of severe overcrowding – the school held more than 400 students but was meant for only 175 – and lack of government funding. Conditions at the town’s all-white high school were infinitely better. The black students sought the equality they deserved.
Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court heard their cry and issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which required public schools to integrate.
The Brown decision was based on five cases nationally – including the one filed against Prince Edward County on behalf of the black students.
But during the next five years, little changed. Virginia’s “massive resistance” efforts delayed integration in most localities, including Prince Edward, whose Board of Supervisors voted in 1955 to allocate no money for desegregated schools.
Many localities then adopted the so-called “Freedom of Choice” policy, whereby citizens could choose where to send their students. But the policy mostly encouraged white students to continue attending previously all-white schools and black students to continue attending all-black schools. It was an utter failure.
Finally in 1959, faced with another court mandate to integrate the county’s schools, Prince Edward’s Board of Supervisors voted instead to close them altogether. It would take a federal court order to pry open the doors some five years later. Prince Edward was the only county in the United States to close its schools for such a prolonged period in order to avoid integration.
“It was a time when a lot of things took place, and a lot of people were concerned,” the former Hilda Johnson recalled recently. “It was not only a national concern but a worldly concern – to think that this is happening in the United States.
“Everybody moved on as best they knew how.”
One Family’s Dilemma
Having effectively banned black students from its schools, the Prince Edward supervisors quickly supplied funding for the “private” Prince Edward Academy for whites in Farmville, which opened in the fall of 1959. Many – but not all – of the county’s white students continued their education there. The academy is today known as the Fuqua School.
Black families, meanwhile, scrambled first to comprehend what had happened, then attempt to overcome it. Solutions were not easy.
The effects of the closure reverberated from many angles through the Harris family of Farmville. Alexander and Emma Harris, natives of the county, were raising six of their eight children there at the time. (The oldest two, William and Raymond, already had completed school and were working.) Alexander – like many in the appropriately named community – was a farmer who grew crops and tended animals.
The family’s oldest daughter, Carol, was a member of the last Moton High school class to graduate before the shutdown. Linwood Harris was in the first class whose graduation never occurred because of it. Emma Harris still can remember clearly when she heard the awful news.
“I got the message that first day that the schools were closing, and that the schoolchildren were coming down the highway,” she recalled, in a hushed tone. “Can you imagine over 100 children walking down the highway into Farmville? And when they got down there, I was down there waiting for them. It was just terrible. A lot of the parents were upset, crying. I imagine I was too. But we just had to do the best we could.”
Though heartbroken for their son whose graduation had vanished, Alexander and Emma had four younger children – Shirley, Alice, Milton and Sally – who were at critical developmental ages. They did not intend to see the youngsters suffer as a result of the county’s decision. The youngest, Sally, was to start kindergarten that fall.
The family tried to enroll their children in the public school system of adjacent Cumberland County, but it was too late. The system, they were told, was full.
One Man’s Motivation
With local options dwindling, a few Prince Edward families sent their children to live with relatives out of state. But for most black students – hundreds, in fact – there were no other options.
And 67 miles away, in Henrico County, that stirred something in a confident young black teacher named Richard Harris.
Perhaps it was the fact that he was only a handful of years removed from his own graduation (from Henrico’s only black high school, Virginia Randolph, in 1953). Maybe it was that he still vividly remembered stepping into the one-room schoolhouse in Hanover County where he first began to learn. Or maybe it was because of the lessons he learned there, at Goodall Elementary School, where the only teacher was his own mother, and where he and the other students rejoiced on the day water pipes were installed, for it meant their daily trips to a nearby spring were over.
Whatever the reason, Harris (no relation to the Farmville Harrises) felt compelled to do something – anything. In his short time as a Henrico teacher, he already had demonstrated a willingness to take chances. Only a few years into his career, Harris had become an active member of the Henrico Teachers’ Association. (The organization was the black teachers’ equivalent to the Henrico Education Association, which only permitted white members).
“There were open elections, and I decided to run,” he recalled, matter-of-factly, “and I won.”
Now the young man was president, and he had a voice.
He used it to wonder aloud to Henrico School Superintendent George H. Moody what Henrico might do to help the students of Prince Edward County. Moody’s response wasn’t quite what Harris had hoped to hear.
The county would gladly accept as many students as it could, Moody said – provided each paid tuition.
Since most families in Prince Edward County lived modestly and couldn’t afford such an expense – and since it would be difficult to locate strangers who might be willing to house and feed their children in Henrico – the idea seemed implausible.
But, Harris thought, there was still one other option.
A Fortunate Move
Several years after the 1951 student protest, Moton High School teacher Hilda Johnson took a teaching job in Cumberland County. Her chosen career placed her in the footsteps of her father, a prominent Farmville schoolteacher who was known to virtually all the community’s black residents. (Emma Harris had been one of his pupils.)
But now the timing was right for Johnson to set out on her own, away from the town where her family had deep roots. After a year in Cumberland, she traveled east and ended up in Henrico. It would be a fortuitous decision – one that would impact several lives.
Here, she accepted a job as a home demonstration agent (the title given to blacks who worked as county extension agents). In her new capacity, Johnson helped organize 4-H clubs, worked with children and maintained her focus on homemaking trends.
It was through her job that Johnson met Priddy Jasper Cosby, a black woman whose own career in education made her an associate of famed Henrico educator Virginia Randolph. (Cosby and Randolph had first worked together years earlier to devise tuberculosis testing and treatment for local black students who couldn’t afford either. They became fast friends.)
Cosby hosted regular meetings of the home demonstration agents in the area, meetings that Johnson regularly attended. One evening, her attention shifted from the topic of the meeting to the sight of an attractive young man in the house. It was Cosby’s son, William, a Henrico teacher.
The two would marry several years later. In time, William Cosby became principal of an all-black elementary school in Henrico County.
‘It Was Amazing’
If Prince Edward County parents could not pay for their children to attend school in Henrico, Richard Harris thought, then maybe Henrico’s black teachers could pay for them.
“I brought the idea to the association, and they bought into it,” he recalled. The HTA agreed that it would try to raise enough money to pay for the tuition of several Prince Edward students and bring them to Henrico. The organization had about 70 members at the time. Quickly, it turned into a fundraising operation.
“We sold candy, we had a popularity contest – we did all sorts of things to raise the money,” Harris said.
Following weeks of events and donations – many from the teachers themselves – Harris counted the total collection. The HTA had raised enough money to support one child.
“It was amazing,” William Cosby recalled during a 1987 interview with a Virginia Tech researcher.
One of the teachers in the organization, Juanita Brown, volunteered to house the child in the home she and her husband shared. The couple had no children of their own.
But the process was not quite complete. Harris needed Moody’s permission to finalize the arrangement and authorize the place-ment of a Prince Edward child in the county. And according to Harris, Moody was less than anxious to provide it.
“He did everything he could to discourage me,” Harris said. “So, being young and not afraid, I just kept insisting. Some of the older principals said, ‘You better walk lightly.’ But I felt that if I could get that job, I could get another one.”
Despite several requests by Harris, Moody delayed a face-to-face meeting that would complete the arrangement. Finally, Harris called the superintendent again and asked to see him. This time, Moody agreed, and invited Harris to his house.
When Harris arrived, he showed Moody a piece of paper with dozens of signatures on it.
“I told him I had the support of all the black teachers in the county,” Harris said. “We had raised enough money to do it.”
Moody studied the document for a time, paused, then added his own name to it.
“He was just as mad as he could be,” Harris said. “He signed it and kind of slung it back at me.”
For one student in Prince Edward County, school had just reopened.
A Journey Begins
By the end of the school year in 1961, the youngest four members of the Harris family of Farmville were scattered. One was in Jetersville, one in Charlottesville, one in Lunenburg and one in New Jersey. Opportunities for education existed in these places, and they did not in Farmville. Though it tore at the Harris parents to split their family apart, they knew they were the fortunate ones. Most of their neighbors had nowhere to send their children for schooling.
Sally Harris had started her education in Atlantic City, N.J., where she lived with older sister Carol. But then Emma Harris, who had maintained occasional contact with Hilda Johnson (now Cosby) learned of the Henrico Teachers Association’s efforts to fund one child’s tuition. That one child could be Sally Harris, if her family approved.
Emma Harris had an aunt and a close friend living in the Richmond area at the time (in addition to Hilda Cosby, who knew Juanita Brown). The scenario gave her the peace of mind necessary to send her baby away.
That fall, Sally Harris made the 67-mile journey from her home in Farmville to a one-story brick schoolhouse on Buffin Road in eastern Henrico County for the first time. The principal waiting to greet her on that quietly historic first day was William Cosby.
The Racial Divide
Though racial tension was noticeable – and at times prominent – in Richmond during the 1950s and ‘60s, it was less discernable in Henrico at the time. Blacks and whites went about their daily lives in relative peace – often because their circles of movement did not overlap.
“I didn’t really encounter a lot of whites,” recalled Lloyd Jackson, a classmate of Richard Harris’s at Virginia Randolph who retired in 1993 after a 34-year career as a Henrico teacher, principal and administrator and now serves as the Fairfield District representative on the Henrico School Board. “We didn’t affiliate with one another.”
During the heated period of integration and massive resistance, there were occasional difficulties, as William Cosby recalled during a 1987 interview.
“I remember coming to my school one morning and taking KKK signs from off the doors and light posts leading to the school,” he told a Virginia Tech researcher.
Still, with scattered exceptions, whites and blacks in the county were respectful to each other, according to Jackson, Harris and others. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of it all was simply the recognition of the system that found it acceptable to teach blacks in one set of schools and whites in another.
“It was tough, but then it wasn’t because we grew up in that kind of an environment,” Harris said. “We just sort of expected it. We didn’t expect anything else. We learned to survive and even in the midst of that, we found ways to overcome it.
“And I suppose it even made us stronger.”
Said Jackson: “It was almost like two school systems. Even though it was not right – even though it was illegal – you sort of worked within the system and did as good a job as you could.”
Though the “Freedom of Choice” option was as much a failure in Henrico as it was elsewhere, there were moments – however fleeting – of hope.
Harris recalled one such occasion, which occurred while he was the principal of all-black Fair Oaks Elementary School.
“I looked out of the window and saw this white family pull in with two kids. I was waiting for them to appear in the office and they never did,” he said. “So I walked out into the hallway and asked a couple seventh-graders who were there did they see a white family with two kids come inside.
“And they said, ‘Yeah Mr. Harris. We ran them off.’”
Harris laughs heartily at the memory today. That he can demonstrates, in his words, “how far we’ve come.”
“I guess their thinking was, well, we’re not welcome at the white schools, so they’re not welcome at ours.”
‘All I Want is My Baby’
Sally Harris spent two years at Henrico Central Elementary School (today Mehfoud Elementary), two years living with Juanita Brown and her husband – two years making friends, practicing spelling, learning multiplication and being a regular child. But she did so away from her family – something that regular bus trips home for the holidays couldn’t quite overcome.
“Just imagine sending your baby, six years old, away to school,” Emma Harris said.
The most trying moment during that period stands out in Harris’ memory with all the clarity of a fire alarm piercing a silent school auditorium.
Sally was returning to Farmville from Henrico for Christmas. She was traveling by bus.
“It was snowing. All of the children had gotten home but her,” Emma Harris recalled, her voice slowing to paint a picture of the afternoon. “I went down to the bus station about three o’clock thinking that she was going to be on that bus. She wasn’t. And I waited and waited, and by that time I was all to pieces.
“The bus came in about nine o’clock, and I asked the driver, ‘Is there another bus behind you?’ He said, ‘There’s one turned over on the side of the road, coming from Richmond. Well, can you imagine how I felt, thinking my baby was on that bus?
“Finally the bus station closed, and they told the people to go to the train station to wait. So I went to the train station. There was nobody there but me. And finally I saw this bus coming up the street. So I ran out in the snow – the snow came up over my knees. The bus driver opened the door, and he says, ‘Lady are you looking for somebody? And I said, ‘Yes, a six-year-old little girl. He said, ‘Here she is sitting right here, is this her?
“She was sound asleep. And somebody had pinned a note on her coat and put some money in it. So he picked her up and handed her to me, and there was a cab driver sitting there waiting. He said, ‘Come on, I’ll take you home.’ He said, ‘Where’s the suitcase?’
“And I said, ‘Don’t worry about the suitcase, all I want is my baby.’”
An ‘Urge to Help People’
Though the story is hers, parts of it even today are foreign to the woman who many years ago was that little girl, alone and asleep on a bus one snowy night.
Today Sally Ann Harris is Sally Ann Beverly, the mother of three grown children and grandmother of 10. Twice married and once widowed, Beverly’s life has taken her from Henrico back to Farmville (where she graduated high school in 1971), later to California (where she earned a bachelor’s degree in health science) and then to Hampton Roads, where she now lives with her mother. (Her father died years ago.)
Upon returning to Farmville when the schools reopened, Harris was able to skip fourth grade and enter fifth grade. While most of her classmates were struggling to readjust to school, she was excelling. She credits her Henrico experience – and in particular the assistance of Juanita Brown – for that.
“I was very fortunate,” Beverly said, recounting her story for a reporter recently. “We were very blessed to have the parents that we did. They went way out to find a way for us to get to school. I’m sure there are some that didn’t have that ability.
“To be frankly honest, I really feel like it was a positive effect. It enabled me to reach out a little bit more and attain my goals. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know where I may have ended up.”
Instead, she ended up at Chesapeake General Hospital, where she has worked since 1987 and now serves as a lab manager, overseeing three analyzers who check the bloodwork of patients.
From an early age, she said, “I just had this certain urge to help people. I love helping people.
“It’s heartbreaking when we lose somebody who we’ve been working on for awhile,” she said, perhaps unaware of the special meaning in her words, “but the satisfaction is seeing a patient who we didn’t think was going to walk out the door walk out the door. That’s the satisfying part.”
Prince Edward County lost hundreds of somebodies in 1959. Some persevered to achieve in spite of it. Some could not. Beverly was one of the few who walked out the door.
Through it all, her role model has been her older sister, Shirley Bolding, who was not able to finish school, but who still devoted herself to becoming a successful nurse.
“The way she came through it was really fantastic,” Beverly said. Last year, Beverly and her five other living siblings gathered with their mother in Farmville to watch as Bolding walked across a stage to receive the high school diploma that she was denied so many years ago. The ceremony was a small piece in the healing process for many former Prince Edward students whose educations ended far too soon.
“Words can’t describe that day,” Beverly said. “It was wonderful.”
‘The Right Thing to Do’
Today, Richard Harris and William and Hilda Cosby still call Henrico home. Though they had lost touch with the child whose life they touched decades ago, she remained in their thoughts from time to time.
“It’s been so long,” Harris said recently, while surrounded by Henrico history during a visit to the Virginia Randolph Museum on Mountain Road. “I’d love to know where she is.”
The museum is a home away from home for the Cosbys; 92-year-old William Cosby has served as curator for several decades and still greets visitors with a warm smile and firm handshake. The couple lives in the same Glen Allen home in which he was raised.
Pictures, paintings and documents outlining the life of the building’s namesake fill the small museum, which the Cosbys have maintained as a labor of love.
It is important – critical, even – that the story of Virginia Randolph and her efforts to educate young black children in Henrico County not fade from memory. This a visitor can sense from even a short visit to this hallowed place and a brief conversation with the couple who keeps it.
But perhaps lost in a wonderful sort of irony is the story in which they themselves played a role. Of this tale, there are no pictures on the wall, no signed documents tucked away neatly in notebooks – not a trace of the little girl who passed through these parts on her way to the rest of her life.
Now her story, too, has been told. Those who helped create it, however, insist that they merely did what they should have done.
“At that time, it was just the right thing to do,” Harris said. “That’s the way we thought of it, and even today that’s the way that I think of it. Those families in Prince Edward that couldn’t afford to pay for their children’s education needed help.
“And it was just the right thing to do.”
There are some who would question the value of one life, or the impact that just one person might make. In this great sphere filled with billions, after all, what is one?
The wide-eyed grandchildren who bounce about Sally Ann Beverly’s Portsmouth home, they know. So too do the patients whose lives she has improved, or helped save.
Forty-three years ago, one little girl traveled 67 miles to Henrico County because one teacher believed she should, because one principal believed she could, because one mother and one father knew she must.
She was just one small person, caught unwittingly in the swirl of a national controversy, and hers is just one story.
But, oh, what a story it is.
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