By: Barbara Bedway
After more than a quarter-century as a reporter and then editor of the twice-weekly, family-owned Farmville Herald (circulation: 9,000) in Virginia’s Prince Edward County, Ken Woodley has learned that “sometimes you write editorials, and sometimes they write you.” One of the latter came to him on a chilly February morning in 2003 as he drove to work. He was reflecting on the Virginia General Assembly’s resolution of “profound regret” for an ugly chapter in the state’s history: the closing of the Prince Edward County public schools from 1959 to 1964 to avoid desegregating them, and the state’s unwillingness to get involved.
The apology seemed a good thing to Woodley, but insufficient. His editorial proposing a scholarship program — which would benefit any state resident who was denied a proper education when the public schools shut down — appeared a few weeks later in the Herald, on March 21, 2003. Two years and many editorials later, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner announced the first scholarship recipients this June.
“It was way too important to simply sit back as an editorial writer and say, ‘Virginia needs to do this,’ and just toss the idea out there,” says Woodley, who not only wrote columns but relentlessly lobbied state lawmakers to create and fund the scholarships. An Op-Ed that appeared in The Washington Post in May 2003 drew a great deal of attention, and Woodley went on to publish more than 30 more in papers statewide.
“I’m in Farmville, not the most powerful paper in the state. I had to put those words in as many places as I could,” he recalls. “I wanted to be able to say to key political people, ‘Listen, people are watching, paying attention. This is something Virginia needs to do.'” Acknowledging that his cluttered office is “the sort that the EPA requires to be triple-lined,” he tried to keep himself organized by typing every detail of his campaign into a computer diary that grew to more than 170 single-spaced pages.
Though the General Assembly voted for the scholarships in 2004, it proposed funding them with only $100,000 “seed money,” reportedly because some legislators expressed doubts that there would be sufficient demand for the scholarships to warrant the $2 million allocation Woodley advocated. He responded with a scorching opinion piece in the Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch.
“These citizens of Virginia and their families from Prince Edward long ago earned the harvest,” he wrote. “Don’t mock them with talk of seeds. They planted the seeds back in the 1950s, plowing the hard apartheid ground around them, on their hands and knees, digging space in the American dirt with their hands, pulling up the weeds of segregation by the roots and, when no rain of justice fell, by the sweat of their brow nurtured the harvest — the constitutional right of every American child to a public education.”
Woodley also helped organize a rally in Richmond attended by several hundred potential scholarship recipients, who traveled there on Prince Edward County school buses. “Everybody at the General Assembly was expecting kids on a field trip, when out come 50-year-old men and women,” Woodley recalls. Among them was John Hurt, locked out after kindergarten, who had visited Woodley’s office to shake his hand after the key editorial appeared. He later received a scholarship; to date, more than 100 people have applied for them.
Woodley says he had the full support of his publisher, Steve Wall, in all his efforts. Wall is the grandson of J. Barrye Wall who, as the Herald’s publisher in the 1950s, supported the Prince Edward school closings in the pages of the Farmville Journal. Steve Wall expresses pride in the paper’s current role as “a think tank for the community,” and notes that the reaction to the scholarship fund has been overwhelmingly good.
“How could you not support it?” he asks. “I had friends, black and white, displaced by the closings.” And while Wall says it may seem unusual for a paper to take such an activist stance, it’s a natural for a small, independently owned weekly. “My door is never shut,” he asserts. “There’s a constant stream of people in here with problems, questions, or suggestions about the way things are run in the community. I have a standard answer: Write a letter to the editor.”
Woodley, the first non-member of the Wall family to become editor of the paper since J.B. Wall purchased it in 1921, was born in Farmville and attended nearby Hampden-Sydney College. The Farmville Journal was the only place to offer him a job when he graduated, and though he never expected to stay for decades, he found as editor he had a chance “to do something of meaning and importance.”
Past crusades include advocating for the state’s uninsured medical catastrophe fund, the only one of its kind in the nation. (He is now urging Congress to create a national version.) He also supported local efforts to preserve as a museum the Farmville school building that was the focus of a 1951 strike by black students over the school’s inferior condition. The strike led to a lawsuit that eventually became part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
A few years ago, Woodley was going through some family albums and found a 1959 photo of himself, blonde-haired and smiling, standing on a sidewalk not far from the Prince Edward County courthouse. “At that very time the community was deciding to close their school,” he says ruefully. “Some very funny sets of coincidences and circumstances brought me back to this community, something that needed doing. I’ve gotten e-mails from all over the country, from people to whom this means a great deal. Hopefully people will look around in their own communities, and see opportunities for reconciliation. Every week I think of editorials as getting up in the pulpit,” he adds. “I feel blessed and lucky to do what I’ve done.”