On a recent Zoom call, Vera Morton squealed with delight at the coming commencement ceremonies taking place Friday at Virginia Western Community College.
The Prince Edward County native had just finished her last exam, statistics she said. It is just a matter of time before she will be holding the prized diploma in liberal arts.
“Managed to be graduating with honors,” Morton said.
It’s taken nearly five years, but the 67-year-old is expected to receive her associate of arts degree Friday at the college, which is set to award more than 784 degrees and credentials.
The Roanoke-based school will host commencement in person for the first time in two years since the pandemic, college president Robert H. Sandel said in a release. Scheduled to make the keynote address is Glenn Dubois, the chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, who also plans to retire in June.
During commencement, Morton will be the student speaker and address some 430 students expected to be in attendance. The wife and mother of two has waited decades to savor this moment to graduate from college.
“Even just by telling my story, that would encourage other students the importance of not to play in school, not to take learning for granted, to learn all they can because whatever you learned today, you might use it tomorrow,” she said.
What makes this walk on Friday, amid the strains of pomp and circumstance, so much sweeter for Morton is because she was denied the proper educational foundation — including not learning how to read and write properly on grade level — during her elementary school years.
It was due to the Massive Resistance sweeping through Virginia and the choice her home district, Prince Edward County, made to shutter its schools from 1959 to 1964. The action delayed Morton’s start of school by five years during very crucial learning years. It’s something that has haunted her all throughout her adult life.
Morton overcame some serious odds. She had battles with lupus and was in a car accident. She faithfully held responsibilities to both her children and being a minister’s wife. Morton also juggled various low-wage labor jobs because that’s all she could get. She even pursued an effort for higher education back in the 1990s at another community college – a pursuit that nearly derailed her.
Morton was undeterred and knew it was time to rise and succeed.
Morton has many fans at the college, including professors and students, but studies weren’t always easy. In the five years since attending VWCC from 2017 to 2022, a few times Morton wanted to give up. Thelma Simpson, a now-retired Spanish professor who taught Morton for two years, encouraged the older student to share her backstory with classmates ( to which she received a standing ovation) and told her quitting wasn’t an option.
“Not on my watch. And that became our mantra,” said Simpson, who became a fast ally, a dear friend and mentor for Morton.
“(Morton) portrays somebody who has … a goal. And she is going to achieve that goal,” Simpson said. “She’s a perfectionist. She will ask questions. She has tremendous insight.”
Morton is the recipient of the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship, created by the Virginia General Assembly in 2004 during the case’s 50th anniversary. State legislators passed this measure – originally funded by a donor for $50,000, and later $1 million with a state match – to “restore education to persons denied a public education … between 1954 and 1964,” according to a 2013 report by Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Committee.
The precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court case outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine, ushering in a new era in the fight for civil rights and a push for education equality under the law in America. Eligible recipients of this scholarship are persons who were denied a public education during Massive Resistance which took place from 1954 through 1964.
For Morton, receiving the scholarship is wonderful, but having an opportunity to share her story and writing a book is her ultimate goal. She wants to tell the story not so much of what it was like growing up during Massive Resistance, but what happened to her siblings and hundreds of other Black families, students, and even some white children, when the public schools abruptly shut down.
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“I wasn’t equipped”
In the years leading to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the modest locality Farmville ( now considered the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement) is where some of the first protests against the “separate but equal” policy ignited.
In 1951, students at Robert Russa Moton High School, built for Blacks in 1939, walked out of classes. Led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns, the strike was a push for improved education. Conditions at the school, like many learning institutions for Black students, lacked resources or were overcrowded, poorly ventilated, crumbling and had substandard education materials, as per data from the Robert Russa Moton Museum website.
The students later met with NAACP lawyers in Richmond, and the entire action sparked several court cases represented by the civil-rights organization: Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County; Briggs v. Clarendon County, South Carolina; Belton V. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart, Delaware; and Bolling v. Sharpe, District of Columbia. These cases were ultimately consolidated under Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal,” was unconstitutional and it was a major win in the fight for civil rights.
In Virginia, however, the complex-court case victory opened the doors to a decade-long campaign called Massive Resistance. Throughout the commonwealth, hundreds of whites fought against desegregation, some through violent means and harassment of Blacks. Reaction in the county was swift, as the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisor simply stopped funding the school district, effectively shuttering the entire school system for about five years through 1964.
Morton and at least six of her siblings living in nearby Rice had been directly impacted by this decision. Hundreds of Black families and even some of the poorer white families in the county were without a means for public school education because of this decision, according to the Zinn Education Project. Instead, the county built a private academy for white families, Morton said. All told, there were five counties that made a decision to withhold funding to school districts.
“Prince Edward County was the only one that decided to stay closed for five years. The rest of them reopen up after a year,” Morton said.
By the time schools began receiving funding again and reopened, it was 1964 and Morton was 9. Immediately placed in third grade, Morton was unprepared for even the mildest of adjustments to elementary school life and further, not given much of a chance to succeed, she said. In general, the elementary school mixed up the older children with the younger. Morton often was relegated to working as a hall monitor for the younger children, escorting them around, she said.
“I didn’t realize (doing) that was taking me out of the classroom,” she said.
Further, the school she attended still retained much of the old order, with many white teachers
unwilling to teach the subjects thoroughly, especially to Black students. The class did very little school work, or received little homework, Morton said, who likened the experience to “social promotion.”
“Although I went all the way through 12th grade … I wasn’t equipped to get a good job, or to succeed in college,” Morton said. “I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t spell well. I missed all that opportunity.”
It really bothered Morton that she couldn’t write well. When she did try to get into better English classes in high school she was unable to get in. Morton later found out the reason why. It was because students who were considered college bound ended up in the better classes, while everyone else was just out of luck. Morton wasn’t considered a college-bound type because she came from a very large family, with 10 children. It was believed families with many children wouldn’t be able to afford college, she said.
Morton persevered in spite of it. There were some positive experiences. Morton learned some skills in home economics. She also had a really great mathematics teacher – someone who was African American, like her.
I did pretty (well) in math,” she said. “But in English, only English teachers were Caucasian. So they didn’t care whether we learned or not.”
A few years after high school, Morton married and began raising her family, including two sons. During those years, Morton worked here and there, but never could land a job that entailed writing of any kind, making her options very limited, she said. There were other stumbling blocks. The family moved around. At one time she was in a car accident and had to relearn how to walk again. She has had an autoimmune disease all of her life.
But she never gave up her dream to attend college. Nearly three decades after high school and even after a hurtful experience at another community college, Morton found her way to Virginia Western in 2017. Though she always had a good life with her family and a lot of love, she always felt she was hiding behind her husband. People were always laughing at her about her inability to read or enunciate words well, she said.
“Because he understood things better than I could,” she said. “I saw .. how the world is changing. And I said, ‘if something were to happen to him,’ I need to be able to understand how to keep things going. That was a drive. I wanted to be able to do better.”
Learning that there was the Brown v Board scholarship available and who was eligible also helped to inspire her. The scholarship is meant for persons who lived through that era, but for many it’s already too late for them to use the funding, she said. Morton advocates for the funding to go to at least the descendants of those persons affected by Massive Resistance.
“ I said, well, they robbed six of us out of education, somebody needs to go, in order to receive something from it. So, I chose myself,” she said. “That’s why I’m trying to fight for them .. to pass the money down to those … to the next generation.”