Day 11/ Mar 9th – Farmville, VA to Elam, VA: We don’t need no segregation

Arriving in Farmville

Farmville: Hard to leave

We’d been wondering whether Farmville would turn out to be another case of inappropriate naming (see blog entries passim) – perhaps it would prove to be a metropolis of glittering skyscrapers, for instance – but to reach it we walked through 20 miles of red-roofed farmhouses, feed silos and stubbly fields spattered liberally with dung, so its name seems entirely accurate.  Unlike its more famous social gaming namesake, however, there are no lost sheep, and no one needs help fertilising their crops.  Instead, it’s a fairly anonymous central Virginian town, with a cluster of chain restaurants along Main Street orbiting the low dark pentagon of a Wal-Mart.

Although Farmville has two colleges, it doesn’t have the buzz or quirk of a student town.  This is perhaps not surprising given that its education system was at the heart of some of the most historic and shameful moments in the battle to overturn school segregation in the US.  Students at the town’s black high school, so starved of funding that some lessons had to be conducted in a bus in the schoolyard, sued the local school board in the 1950s to win the right to an equal share of funding for their school.  Along with three other similar schools, they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which, against the odds, ruled in their favour in 1954, effectively outlawing school segregation.

Instead of conceding graciously this complete legal and moral defeat, Farmville’s county government threw a colossal hissy fit, refusing to fund any public schools – thus closing them all down – for an astonishing five years.  White students were quietly moved into private ‘segregation academies’, some of which, incredibly, survived into the 1990s.  Black students largely went without education for five years.  The former black high school – a tiny brick building scarcely the size of a small restaurant – is now a museum, where these episodes are neatly and movingly documented.

It was difficult, knowing this recent history, to see the town as anything other than a nest of recalcitrant bigots.  We took a planned rest day here, but it was a hard place to warm to.  Next to our motel was a failing little mall whose depressing outlets included a payday loan office, a liquor store, a lottery outlet and a defunct cinema.  As we passed a shop called simply Discount Store, Sally peered in and remarked, “God, there’s a lot of junk in there.”  On cue, a morbidly obese woman emerged from the entrance pushing a trolley overflowing with curtain rods, garden ornaments and novelty Christmas lights, and said cheerfully to her friend, “I’ve got a lot of junk!”

It proved to be a difficult place to leave.  The next motel west of it is thirty miles away, in Appomattox, so we planned to walk fifteen miles out of town and take a cab back, then complete the rest of the distance tomorrow.  We had resigned ourselves to trudging against the traffic on our old friend Route 460, but a kind man raking leaves in his garden pointed us towards a rail trail that ran just alongside it.  For long-distance walkers, these paths are the Holy Grail: they’re direct, easy on the feet, and close to main roads and therefore to petrol stations, restaurants and motels.  Signs ask walkers to yield to horses, and cyclists to yield to both, but we saw none of either, and in fact not another living soul, during three hours’ hiking along it.

We popped out onto the highway after the planned fifteen miles, sat on a grassy bank by the roadside and began ringing the four taxi companies in Farmville.  One rang without reply, and the next went through to a fax.  The third was answered by ‘Hawk’ of Eagle Taxis, who declined to come out and pick us up because “I gotta go to the drugstore”.  Our last hope, Barksdale Taxis, agreed reluctantly to pick us up in exchange for the kind of sum normally associated with the bailout of a failing bank, then took well over an hour to arrive.

By this time, in desperation, we’d already called Dorothy, a friendly and efficient woman who had done our laundry yesterday; within fifteen minutes she had sent Larry, one of her employees, to pick us up.  Larry was an engaging and easy-going fellow of about thirty, with an arresting selection of tattoos up both arms and around his neck.  As we drove back to Farmville he told us about his foster-family, who had moved him there from New Jersey, and about his time in the National Guard in Iraq.  He had worked for a year as a guard at Abu Ghraib prison, at around the same time as the infamous abuses had taken place.  We asked him if he’d seen any of it happening.

“I din’t know ’bout any of that.  The prisoners was quiet when they git what they want, and rowdy when they din’t.  Like prisoners are.  Y’know?”

We gave Larry the benefit of the doubt: anyone who’ll make a thirty-mile round-trip to pick up total strangers was OK by us.

So, in short, thank you, Dorothy, thank you, Larry, and screw you, Farmville, with your shameful history and your crappy taxi companies.  Even that monstrously irritating internet game is better than the actual place.

On the rail trail

On the rail trail out of Farmville

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2 Responses to “Day 11/ Mar 9th – Farmville, VA to Elam, VA: We don’t need no segregation”

  1. Day 46/ Apr 13th – Berea, KY to Richmond, KY: A tale of two colleges « The Walkover States Says:

    […] and tolerance in an area not historically noted for either – a sort of polar opposite to Farmville, which we walked through last month.  Perhaps most incredibly of all, Berea College charges no […]

  2. Susan Edwards Says:

    I would just like to say that if you are going to criticize an entire community (or communities), you should (at the very least) get your facts straight and make opinions based on fact. There are several shopping centers in the town of Farmville. Only one of these is beside a hotel or motel. This one shopping center is nothing as you describe. I believe I know which shopping center you are referring to even though you did not come close to a fair or accurate description. Yes, this town has a sordid past. This is not the fault of most who live here today. Since you were so quick to have a negatively biased opinion of the community you failed to take note of any of the positive qualities. For example, though Farmville is a small community, there is both a local college and a university. Also, neighbors generally will help in times of need. Farmville is attempting to turn its negative past into rich history. If you would like to scrutinize this community (and make its people out to be hicks who do not even know the English language) maybe someone should do the same with your community. I am sure London has plenty to criticize.

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