What’s the most historically significant site in this part of Virginia? Hold that thought while we go back to Egypt in the 1950s and the construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile.
The dam was a top priority of the Egyptian government, which wanted to control flooding, provide water for irrigation and create hydroelectric power that would help the country industrialize – and modernize. The dam was also set to submerge ancient monuments, mostly temples constructed during the time of the pharaohs.
Their impending disappearance under the rising waters became a matter of international concern. “It is not easy to choose between a heritage of the past and the present well-being of a people, living in need in the shadow of one of history’s most splendid legacies,” lamented Vittorino Veronese, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “It is not easy to choose between temples and crops.”
The result was the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, which wound up relocating 22 temples and tombs in what UNESCO described as “the greatest archaeological rescue operation of all time.” That, in turn, led to the 1972 World Heritage Convention in Paris, which sought to identify other sites around the world that are of such cultural importance that they should be saved for all mankind.
We know these today as World Heritage Sites and there are 1,514 of them across 167 countries, from the “minaret and archaeological remains of Jam” in Afghanistan to Mosi-oa-Tunya (better known as Victoria Falls) in Zimbabwe.
Someday there might be another one – in Farmville, Virginia.
In the United States, nominations for a World Heritage Site designation are handled by the National Park Service (bet you didn’t know the Park Service has an Office of International Affairs – it does). So far there are 24 American sites with a World Heritage Site designation – notables include the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, the Everglades, Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park. Also Monticello and the University of Virginia.
In 2008, the National Park Service put together a “tentative list” of 20 more sites, which has since been trimmed to 19. Among those on the list are “Thomas Jefferson buildings” (which includes Poplar Forest in Bedford County and the Virginia State Capitol), Mount Vernon, Ellis Island, “early Chicago skyscrapers,” and, for our purposes here today, “civil rights movement sites.” That list of civil rights sites began with three churches in Alabama: the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery where Martin Luther King Jr. once served as pastor, the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham that was a center of civil rights activities, and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that was bombed by white supremacists. One of the historians advising on those nominations was Glenn Eskew, a historian at Georgia State University whose works include the acclaimed “But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle.” That advisory work has now evolved into the GSU World Heritage Initiative, a wide-ranging project to identify other sites that should be included under the general heading of those “civil right movement sites” considered for World Heritage Site status.
And what’s what brings us to Farmville. One of the sites under consideration is the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, which formerly was a segregated school where, in 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns led a student walkout that ultimately led to one of the lawsuits that formed the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. (Hat tip here to The Farmville Herald, where I first saw this nomination reported.)
“Under consideration” is probably too weak a phrase.
“We expect Moton to make it to World Heritage; I want to make that clear,” Eskew told me during a recent interview. The only question is how long it will take and what other sites are included.
You’ll notice that the National Park Service came up with its tentative list in 2008; Georgia State has been working on this “serial nomination” since 2016. That gives you some sense of how quickly this process moves – or doesn’t. “Regrettably we’re dealing with two of the most complicated bureaucracies I’ve ever seen,” Eskew said. “On the one hand, the federal government. On the other, the World Heritage Committee. This is a diplomatic thing. You enter the realm of the diplomats and U.S. Department of State and it’s all very structured and the protocol is pretty strict.”
That’s a long way of saying nobody knows how long this will take. “We’ve been working on it for the past five years but it was held up because the last four years in Washington weren’t really the most productive – that hasn’t helped matters,” Eskew said. He’s being diplomatic there.
Moton, he says, is an easy choice to be added to the list, given that it was a site that led to the Brown decision. “Moton is so central to our bigger stories,” he said. In all, though, the Georgia State project is studying more than 300 properties across the country to figure out which ones should be recommended for inclusion. Out of those, “we’ve got about a dozen properties we’re looking at that we think would make a complete serial nomination,” Eskew said.
The whole project is unusual in this respect: Other World Heritage sites tend to be geological features (the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia) or architectural ones (the Sydney Opera House). The goal here is to recognize sites that are significant for their political role. As Eskew puts it: “Cathedrals in Europe have a better time than sites dealing with liberation movements.”
So once again, best not to wager on how long this will take or what the ultimate disposition might be. Instead, let’s look at what this might mean. Here’s where we turn from the political and the philosophical to the practical. A World Heritage Site designation can mean one thing for certain, Eskew says: tourism dollars.
“World Heritage Sites are not well understood in the United States but it’s where the more savvy travelers go,” he said. “So what it would mean for Farmville would be more global attention because of this riveting story of Barbara Johns and this walkout of students over their inferior education.”
Here’s where I must discourse on this historical irony: That “riveting story” – which, indeed, is riveting – drew little attention at the time in the mainstream media of the day. Johns passed away in 1991 and it’s only since her death that she and her story have become famous – with a state office building named in her honor, her story included in Virginia’s history textbooks, a statue of her commissioned to stand in the U.S. Capitol. All that’s a reminder that history doesn’t change but our understanding of it does. Something that wasn’t deemed important at the time – at least in the white-controlled media – is now considered something of global significance. Or, in the language of the World Heritage Committee, a place of “outstanding universal value.”
It may take years for all this to wind its way through the various bureaucracies involved. In the meantime, I’d pose this question: What should Farmville and Prince Edward County be doing now to prepare themselves to be home to a possible World Heritage Site? Or, let me ask the question a different way: Are they doing enough now to embrace the heritage they have? Or how about this: Virginia has set in motion a statue of Johns as one of its two statues in the U.S. Capitol. So why isn’t there one in Farmville, as well? Should the state commission two instead?