Program Information

Program: Witness to a Century
Segment Number: 12 (Watch entire program)
Duration: 00:05:00
Year Produced: 2008

A court case resulted from black students walking out of a Prince Edward County school, and it along with four others was decided in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of separate educational facilities was inherently unequal.

The Roaring Twenties. Prohibition. The Great Depression. World Wars. The explosive growth of technology. Testimony from Virginia’s centenarians is used to create WCVE PBS’ one-hour documentary, “Witness to a Century.” WCVE PBS and the Virginia Historical Society have collaborated on this look back at the enormous changes that took place in Virginia in the twentieth century through the eyes of those that lived through them.

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The flawed premise of “separate but equal education” began to unravel in April 1951 when black students at the Robert Russa Moton School in Farmville, in Prince Edward County, walked out in protest of discrimination. A court case resulted from this unprecedented action, and it along with four others was decided in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of separate educational facilities was inherently unequal.

Black and white Virginians were part of a movement that sought equal access to education, public accommodations, and the electoral process. The civil rights movement achieved major goals with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


When desegregation came in, and you could ride on the front of the bus, or (you know) anywhere, I told my husband, “I been sitting at the back of that bus a long time, and I’m not sitting in that back – bus anymore. I’m going to sit on the front.”

My legs would be so cold ‘cause I was on the front seat where’d they open that door, you know and my legs would be so cold sitting up there (laughs). But I’d sit up, but I'd there because just because I could set up there.

And I’d get on the bus in Richmond, and one big [fat]t– White lady was sitting on the bus, on-on a second seat in the bus, and she– nobody’s sitting there. And she put her pocketbook there. And I said to her, “Will you move the pocketbook, please? It didn’t [pay a way].” And she wouldn’t move it. I said, “Well, move the pocketbook.” Till she picked it up. (laughs) Oh, she got red she turned...I was kinda funny you know. It kind of tickled me, well I guess I did it out of meanness. Oh, I don’t know what I did it for. I did it because I could, all right. But anyhow, I would let them know that I knew the difference. And I been sitting up front ever since.


When I retired and came back to Norfolk in ’70, I changed my voting (you know) from where I was to there. I volunteered as a worker. I found eight teachers who would work. We built up that-that precinct to almost 2,000 people, and they would come and voting too.


My husband was very instrumental, he was a politician. He said, “Even the President of the United States, I’m equal to him at the poll. He has one vote, I have one vote.” Every man is equal at the poll. and don’t let anybody buy that one vote. That’s precious.


Eventually, the Virginia leaders who asserted states’ rights gave way to the federal assertion of civil rights for all citizens. Legal segregation ended, but the road to integration remained rocky.

The final blow to the old order came with the sweeping changes ushered in by the Constitution of 1971. And two decades later, in 1989, Virginia voters made history when L. Douglas Wilder became the first elected African American governor in the nation


To be the first to elect a Black governor; it was a big deal. I don’t think anybody would ever have thought that it would happen in Virginia, of all states.


Course, naturally exciting. Saw things change. It gave us a stepping stone to maybe greater things, maybe opened doors for others.


Well, that was a token. That was– That was a good step in-in-in the right direction. After all these years and all we’ve gone through, and we’re still fighting for some of the same things, is it better? You ask– You know, you ask yourself. You know. (I) And you say: I wonder. I wonder if it is. You might have a few more people who are convinced, but is it better? I-I can’t tell you it’s better. It’s a pity. But I think– (..) I think God’s got to have a hand in it for it to be better.