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Once denied schooling due to race, 67-year-old earns her degree

When Virginia Western Community College holds its commencement ceremonies Friday, one of its graduates will share her story of perseverance.

As a child, the 67-year old student commencement speaker was hurt by Virginia’s refusal to integrate public schools. In the 1950’s, Vera Morton wasn’t allowed to attend public school, one of many African-Africans impacted by Massive Resistance.

After the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, some school systems in Virginia simply shut down rather than integrate them. The General Assembly adopted a policy of Massive Resistance in 1954 to obstruct desegregation.

That included Prince Edward County, where Morton lived, just outside of Farmville.

“We couldn’t understand why the white kids were going (to school) and we couldn’t go,” she said. “I remember President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King came to the area (to try and get schools re-opened) and most parents were afraid for their children to go, because they didn’t know what the white people would do, so I missed out on that opportunity.”

Vera Morton

Morton wasn’t allowed to attend school until 1964, when she was automatically enrolled in third grade. And she didn’t get much of an education, getting what she called ‘reject’ teachers, and old handed-down textbooks.

“They just didn’t care,” she said. “By the time I got to the 11th grade, I hadn’t learned anything. But I ended up graduating with a high school diploma.”

Reality set in for Morton after that, when she started looking for a job, and couldn’t write or read well. She had to settle for positions in factories and stores.

Morton spent much of her following years as a pastor’s wife, and didn’t mind that her family moved around a lot, and she didn’t get to know people very well.

Her family often asked why she had so much trouble reading.

“Even my grandchildren couldn’t understand – (and would ask) Grandma, how come you can’t pronounce that word? I can read better than you!,” she said. “So I had to sit down and tell them. Sometimes now, I even wonder – do they really understand the full impact, because a lot of people have never really heard talk of Brown vs. Board of Education, they never heard talk of Farmville or Prince Edward County, where schools were closed for five years.”

Morton tried to attend community college in the 1980’s, but again, the lack of fundamentals from elementary school proved difficult.

But in 2004, Virginia’s General Assembly created the Brown vs. Board of Education Scholarship, for those like Morton – who could not enroll in Virginia public schools during Massive Resistance, from 1954 to ’64.

“Virginia Western – and the faculty and staff has just been wonderful,” she said. “They really have encouraged me to the point that I’m not stopping. I’m not done learning yet. I want to go back and see how much I can learn, even at my age.”

Morton is getting her associate’s degree in Liberal Arts.

One day soon, Morton says she hopes to write a book about her experience when schools were closed to her and many others, and the struggles experienced once they were placed in school.

As for Friday Night’s Commencement speech at the Berglund Center in Roanoke, she calls it a ‘snapshot’ of much of her life, seeking an education, working odd jobs, and thanking those who got her where she is today.

The commencement ceremony starts Friday night at 6:30pm, and can be streamed live on the Virginia Western Community College YouTube page.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.