Interview of Carl Eggleston. Interviewed by George Gilliam, Mason Mills, of The Ground Beneath Our Feet project.

Carl Eggleston was a middle school student when schools were closed in Prince Edward County in 1959.

This interview was taken in 2000 for "Massive Resistance," episode four of "The Ground Beneath Our Feet: Virginia's History Since the Civil War," a production of George H. Gilliam and the Central Virginia Educational Television Corporation. George H. Gilliam is the Producer of the series, William G. Thomas, III the Assistant Producer, and Mason Mills the Director of Photography.

The transcripts represent what was said in the interview to the best of our ability. It is possible that some words, particularly names, have been misspelled. We have made no attempt to correct mistakes in grammar.

Mr. Gilliam: Carl, in 1959 the Board of Supervisors of Prince Edward County announced that it would not appropriate money to reopen the schools in September, and this came after eight years of litigation involving the Prince Edward County School Board. Were you aware as a nine year old of any of what was going on with the school litigation?
School Closing
Mr. Eggleston: I think, what I can recall is that then the first two years I and my brothers and my sister were unable to go to school at all, and we went to something similar to a vacation bible school at our church, which is the First Baptist Church, and because I was nine years old I don't recall all that happened then, but I do recall not going to school and being allowed to go maybe a half a day at the church for some type of training. And, the rest of the time, basically, we just had leisure time in the street playing ball and those types of things.
Mr. Gilliam: Did there come a time when your family decided to move away from Prince Edward County?
Mr. Eggleston: Well, the first two years, we did not attend school, and then beginning of the third year my parents felt that we needed some formal education and they rented a home over in Cumberland County, which allowed them to send us to school over in Cumberland.
Mr. Gilliam: Did you all actually move to Cumberland or did you just have the house there?
Mr. Eggleston: Well, we had the house there and we stayed there some time and here some time, but we had it there so we could, you know, satisfy the laws of the State, in particular Cumberland County, that you need to be a resident of the county in order to attend the schools over there, particularly without being, you know, charged fees for doing it.
Mr. Gilliam: What did your daddy do for a living?
Mr. Eggleston: He was a cabinetmaker and used to refinish and restore furniture.
Mr. Gilliam: Did he have his own business or did he work for somebody?
Mr. Eggleston: Oh he was in business for himself. He was in business for himself.
Mr. Gilliam: So, when you all had to basically moved your center of operations, did he move his business, or was he able to keep that here in Farmville?
Mr. Eggleston: He was able to keep the business here because as you might know the town of Farmville is broken into Prince Edward County as well as Cumberland County. So, the house that we were in, it was on about four miles from the town of Farmville. So, it was a short distance to go over there to school.
Mr. Gilliam: Were you able to go to the same church or did you change churches at that time?
Mr. Eggleston: No. We went to the same church.
Mr. Gilliam: So, you missed, in effect, two years of school?
Mr. Eggleston: Two years of school. That's right.
Mr. Gilliam: When you enrolled in school in Cumberland County, did they move you up two years or did they set you back to where you'd been when you were in Prince Edward County?
Mr. Eggleston: No. We was set back. We went to the same grade that we should have gone before school closed. I think where I was able to make it up was during the free school system after - it was a long period of time for the school was closed, and then once the, I think President Kennedy, found some money to open up the school system and it was Prince Edward County free school system. And, in that free school system they allowed individuals to take certain tasks and if you could master certain skills you was able to skip a grade or two.
Mr. Gilliam: So, you got back to where you should have been when you came back to Prince Edward?
Mr. Eggleston: I may have been a year off, but I certainly picked up a year.
Mr. Gilliam: How old were you when you graduated high school?
Mr. Eggleston: I was eighteen, almost nineteen. I may have been almost on time. Almost on time.
Mr. Gilliam: Where did you go after that?
Mr. Eggleston: After that when I - after I completed high school, I went up to Galax, Virginia where I took up some furniture reupholstering and furniture refinishing, that's a part of a program that the Virginia Employment Commission had. And, so, I could train as furniture repair and furniture reupholster.
Mr. Gilliam: But, that's not what you do now?
Mr. Eggleston: No. That's not what I do now. No, that's not what I do now.
Mr. Gilliam: What do you do now?
Mr. Eggleston: Well, right now I am a licensed funeral director and a licensed embalmer.
Mr. Gilliam: Where did you get your training for that profession?
Political Activism
Mr. Eggleston: My formal training came from John Tyler Community College in Chester, Virginia which is the only school in the state that has a mortuary science program and I did my apprenticeship or internship with a funeral home in Richmond called Mimm's Funeral Home. So, my training as a funeral director and as a embalmer came from John Tyler and Mimm's Funeral Home.
Mr. Gilliam: Carl, you've during most of your adult life, have been active in public affairs and active in politics and in public life. What got you active in public affairs?
Mr. Eggleston: I guess, what got me active in public affairs is that I realized that Afro-Americans, particularly in Farmville, were somewhat deprived of certain opportunities and that somebody needed to be a spokesperson, somebody needed to take on the establishment, and someone needs to try to, I guess, probably have Afro-Americans to realize that they can run for elective office. That they can apply for a position on the County School Board. Or, that they could do other things in the community and somebody had to-need to take an active role to try to encourage that and to make conditions right for that.
Mr. Gilliam: Carl, were there any African-Americans that held public office during the '60s in Prince Edward County?
Mr. Eggleston: No. Not to my knowledge.
Mr. Gilliam: Where did the leaders come from, the African-American community?
Mr. Eggleston: I guess, the leaders came from the civil rights movement and separate individuals come to mind. The late Reverend L. Francis Griffin was one. Another person was - Willie Shepersone was another person that was very active then, and probably some other people too, but those two came - come to mind.
Mr. Gilliam: Was there - were there any blacks elected to the Farmville town council, before you?
Voting Rights
Mr. Eggleston: No. No. I was the first Afro-American to serve on Farmville Town council, and that came about as a result that I had asked the town council on several occasions to abandon the at-large system of voting, and to place in - and to put into place a ward type system where that Afro-Americans would have a fair opportunity to be elected to council. And after several times asking them the question then I sued them in federal court. And, as a result, we have a what's called a modified ward plan where's are two wards that are drawn pretty much in the Afro-American community, and the other three based in - has a white majority and there are two at-large seats which makes seven council members.
Mr. Gilliam: The changes that have occurred in the area of race relations in Prince Edward Country, at least on the formal legal level, have occurred then as the result of federal court decisions. It was federal courts which ordered the schools integrated. It was federal courts which put in the modified ward system. What is this leave you with, thinking about the political system if the changes came not from the political system but through the legal system?
Mr. Eggleston: Well, I guess, it tells you one thing. Number one it tells you, basically, that if Afro-America want equal justice, they're going to have to take the initiative and make it happen themselves and that the basic constituency up in Farmville and Prince Edward are not going to take the initiative to say well, now is the time for us to make us all of us warn, or we all are considered, and we all are equal citizens in the eyes of the Lord and also in this community. And I think it's going to take us to do it ourselves as opposed to waiting on someone to do it, and the way that we was able to achieve those means is to use the federal court system.
Mr. Gilliam: Do you feel that progress has been made?
Mr. Eggleston: I think, a lot of progress has been made. A lot of progress was made. Back in November we just elected the first African-American sheriff, a fellow by the name of Travis Harris who was willing to serve who is a very able, well qualified, and he was going to and would be and has been willing to serve all citizens without regard to race. So, hopefully we've made a progress in that. And, of course, we now do have two members on the Farmville town counsel and we have at least two African-Americans our a Board of Supervisors. So, a lot of progress has been made. Three, on the Board of Supervisors. Three members on the county Board of Supervisors now.
Mr. Gilliam: In terms of your personal experiences and attitudes, do you think that the fight of the 1950s over schools was a fight worth fighting?
Mr. Eggleston: Yeah. I believe it's a fight worth fighting because as a result of all the activity and the protest and the litigation came Brown versus the Board of Education decision, which ruled that separate and unequal educational facilities are unconstitutional. I'd like to think it would have came to that point at some point down the road anyway, but it may have been twenty, twenty-five years down the road before that would have happened, so I think the fight was well worth it.
Race Relations
Mr. Gilliam: What about your personal attitudes towards race relations. Do you think they're better today than they were twenty years ago?
Mr. Eggleston: I think that race relations is a whole lot better than it was fifteen, twenty years ago. I think the attitudes of Afro-Americans have changed. I think the attitudes of whites has changed. I think the attitude of just everybody in this community have change. I think that there is, at least we're making a step in the right direction, and I think there are a lot of people who are interested in working on race relations and improving that and doing some things that will probably lead to their end.
Mr. Gilliam: Where do whites and blacks have the most interaction in Farmville? Is it in school, is it in business, is it in churches? Or, maybe another way of saying is, which areas are still segregated and which are getting to be integrated?
Mr. Eggleston: I think, probably, the school system would probably one indication that the races are interested in working together because we have a good school system, a system that both Afro-Americans and white work well together. Also, I could think of the Moton museum project, which the board is basically, at this point, almost 50/50 whites and Afro-Americans together. I think that's one thing that certainly indicate that there's a change and they have made contributions to it, and this particular project was just the Robert Russa Moton Museum is actually one of the sites that the Brown decision was - came out of. That Prince Edward was one of the five cases in the Brown decision, so. And to see Afro-Americans and whites work together to make that a museum is certainly an indication that we have come a long way, a long way, in race relations. And we're certainly headed in the right path.
Mr. Gilliam: Is there still a group here that has not accepted the changes?
Mr. Eggleston: I'm more than sure that there are a small group that has not accepted the changes. I think they are becoming extinct, that basically, most people realized that you know, to improve race relations in Farmville and Prince Edward so to be to everybody's advantage. And, I think, that perhaps those who are against improving race relations are certainly a minority.
Mr. Gilliam: I read a quote attributed to one of the leaders of the Moton School in the 50s when they were trying to figure out how to get this problem behind them. They looked and they saw that really the white community had been mobilized by five people. Crawford, Hanbury, Barrye Wall, and two others whose names I can't remember, but they were the ones who sort of keeping the pot stirred from the white community. And the joke that somebody made was this problem would go away if we just had five funerals and there was never any violence, as far as I know there was never any violence discussed. But, what that quote indicated to me was that maybe that leadership, the white leadership, that were so resistant, was out of step with the ordinary working people in the community. What's your perception? Do you think those people were speaking for the white majority, or were they speaking for a minority of the whites?
Mr. Eggleston: I would like to think that they was a minority, that they were speaking for a minority, and that was a silent majority that was confused about what would be the best approach to take. And those five you've named, or certainly alluded to, were probably five strong individuals who had a clear mind of what they wanted to do, and they wanted to resist integration and they put forth the effort to try to make that happen. But I think that, and I like to think, and I like to always think that they were in a minority. It's just that those five was willing to step up and be counted.
Mr. Gilliam: Everything I've read about the public meetings that that crowd conducted, and I've read the Richmond News Leader, the Richmond Times Dispatch, I've read books, it looked like every single thing was really well orchestrated. I read about a meeting that was held at Longwood College in 1955 where Dabney Lancaster, who was, I guess, just retiring as president of Longwood College, and was a figure that most people in the community respected a lot, got up and tried to take basically a conciliatory or a moderate approach and said, you know, this is inevitable, this is going to come, it's the right thing, we've got to go with it. They had planted, in various parts of the audience, presidents of the PTAs and the football coach from the high school, just different people, and they all got up and gave basically the same speech saying we're not ready. We can't accept it yet, and it just struck me as being staged and manipulated and I just wondered if you sort of shared that feeling?
Mr. Eggleston: Yeah. I think that those - it was pretty much orchestrated, and those individuals met countless hours and talked about, you know, what plan of action they might take, and it was well thought out and well planned - the activities and to try to achieve the results they wanted.
Mr. Gilliam: Do you have any bitterness?
Mr. Eggleston: No. I don't really have any bitterness. Because I believe that those individuals did what they thought was best and they was doing what their forefathers and their individual - their parents and grandparents had taught them. So I think most of those individuals kind of grew up with that and that's probably the only way of life they knew. So I think basically, if you look at it from that standpoint, that it was basically - that was all - instilled upon them from their parents and grandparents, and other relatives that basically, they was doing what they thought was right. And they was basically rehearsing what they had heard in their kitchen at home, or in their living room or whatever, at church. And they thought that that was the best that they could do at that point in time. And unfortunately, they were wrong, but I think they was doing what they had been taught and had been trained, and probably, you know, for years and years and years from maybe two or three years old, on up to adulthood and they - that's what they was taught, that to separate the races, and that was the right thing to do and that's what they should be doing. And, as I said, it's unfortunate that they were wrong and they were misled, but that was part of their upbringing.
Mr. Gilliam: History doesn't turn on a dime.
Mr. Eggleston: No, It doesn't. No, It doesn't.
Mr. Gilliam: It takes time to change people's...
Mr. Eggleston: It takes time.
Mr. Gilliam: ... hearts.
Mr. Eggleston: It takes a lot of - it takes time to change and - and I've realized it in some of the political activities that I'm involved with that I'm better accepted now, than I was ten, fifteen years ago. So I think it takes a little time for things to - to change, and time for things to heal and I certainly think that this community which is Prince Edward and Farmville is heading down the right road, that we're working to become, as I like to call it; one Farmville and one Prince Edward. And we're working to that and hopefully in the not too distant future that that would become a reality.
Mr. Gilliam: How do you think your son feels? What do you - how do you explain this to your son?
Mr. Eggleston: Well, the best you can do is just talk to him and explain to him what happened, and help him to realize why it happened, help him to understand that people in that time thought they were doing what was right but they were wrong, and that it's a part of history and that we're moving on forward and that he needs to do his part to make sure that we all become one, that's both black and white race to become one, and that we should - we should - keep the past as history, but not continue to dwell on the past and to try to look forward to the future and to do his share to make this a better place for all of us.
Mr. Gilliam: What was he taught in school about this period?
Mr. Eggleston: I really don't believe the school system taught a lot about this period. I think that it was discussed in certain class to a certain degree, but I don't think that it was a lot talked, or discussed about; particularly Prince Edward back in the massive resistance years. And probably one thing that would be good is to - if there were more teaching it in the county schools about what happened then and then it could have a contrast to show where we might be at today and from both of those illustrations, you can draw the conclusion that we've made a lot of progress; a lot of progress. And we all need to do our part to continue in that progress.
Mr. Gilliam: Mason?
Mr. Mills: I think that's pretty good. I liked that last question.
Mr. Gilliam: Do we think Carl looks better in person or on TV?
Mr. Mills: Yeah he looks good....
Mr. Eggleston: Probably
Mr. Mills: I'll take the both answer.
Mr. Gilliam: [laughter] Budding politician here.
Mr. Mills: The only, I guess, I'll go... If I could think of one thing? Do you think that your son gets the same kind of education as say my son would?
Mr. Eggleston: The same type of education?
Mr. Gilliam: Do you think your son in Farmville gets as good an education as a white child in a suburban school?
Mr. Eggleston: I feel that he receives a good education here in Prince Edward. Because the time that he came about, that the system was basically a mixed system, instructors and students, and that it was pretty much balanced between Afro-Americans and also whites with teachers and students. So, I think he received the best possible education that he could with the means that this particular county has.
Mr. Mills: How do you compare that to the education that you received? When you were going through grade school and -
Mr. Eggleston: Well the education that I received was basically in a majority black high school. I think probably there may have been four white students in the class, in the whole high school that I was in. But I'm more than sure when he graduated from high school, and of course his junior year and sophomore year, it was pretty much 60% Afro-American and 40% white as opposed to when I was there, it was less than 1%. And I think as a result, that he would have the opportunity to interact with other white students and have the opportunity to play, you know, basketball and football and other activities with them where, when I was there, our football team was all black. So he would have the advantage of interacting with a different race more so than I had.
Mr. Mills: And in that sense, do you think the education he is receiving is more equal to that of all races, than maybe - maybe back when you were in school, maybe it was a little different where...
Mr. Eggleston: Well, ...
Mr. Mills: ... as we know it was different -
Mr. Eggleston: Well, I think his was much better - his was much better than mine because he had the opportunity to have white teachers. And, of course, all of our instructors were black. And that basically he would have - or had, at that time, he had the opportunity to benefit from those individuals and certainly get a different perspective and certainly a different cultural perspective. And I think he benefited from that.
Mr. Mills: Do you wish you had that kind of experience, back then?
Mr. Eggleston: Yeah. I wish I had that experience. Because I think that's beneficial. Because once you leave school, you have to go into the real world where you have to live and work with all races, you know, on different jobs or in college or other things. So, I think that you're much further down the road if you had an opportunity in high school, than attending an all black high school, and then have to go out there and work and compete with all races, I think the experiences was - was certainly be beneficial to any individual. And I think he benefited from that. And I had to, maybe, compensate for some of that.
Mr. Mills: Do you think what you missed is that inter-relationship, more than say, the actual education that was given? Because I know that books seem to be second rate, you know, sometimes hand-me down books or things like that. I know during the Moton School, do you feel like you missed more of the inter-relation?
Mr. Eggleston: Well I - I think it's both. I think, of course, the books and materials was not as good as it could have been and I think if we had the opportunity to have better books, better teaching materials, some - probably some new ideas that was - came about as - now that wasn't available to us then, that may have been available to other people. I think that it would be - it would have certainly been beneficial to us, or beneficial to me. He had the opportunity to enjoy some of those, and I think it's made him a better person educationally as well as a person too, because he had the benefit and had the opportunity to work side by side with other races and especially, particularly in a classroom that's pretty much equal.
Mr. Mills: Do you feel cheated with your education?
Mr. Eggleston: I guess sometime I feel a little bit cheated, but I think, you know, as a whole and somehow I came out basically - I somehow - I think I made up for a lot of it because I had a lot of good experiences and that I had the opportunity to serve as the first Afro-American on the Town Council. I am now serving as Chair of the 5th Congressional District Democratic Committee, which I'm the first Afro-American to hold that post. I am the owner of two funeral homes. So, even though I was deprived of some education, and certainly in the early years, somehow, with the help of the Lord, I guess, and a lot of good people, I was able to catch up and probably was able to live an average life or certainly a pretty average life for a person who was denied that education.
Mr. Mills: You made-You made the best of what you had.
Mr. Eggleston: I made the best of what I had, and I think it probably, being denied, made me work harder to achieve. And, also made me realize that I needed to make it regardless, and, probably, if I wanted to enjoy some of the finer things in life that as the result of maybe missing a couple of years at school that I had to work that much harder to achieve those things, and I did so.
Mr. Mills: But you don't really wish that on other people -
Mr. Eggleston: Oh, no. No. No. No. No.
Mr. Mills: - it shouldn't have to be that way.
Mr. Eggleston: No. It shouldn't have to be that way, and I don't think it's that way now. At least I'm not aware of any circumstances that's that way now. So, no. I don't wish that anyone. That's - because that's a hard life to live, and you're constantly being, I guess, overworking yourself to compensate.
Mr. Gilliam: Thank you, Carl.
Mr. Eggleston: You're welcome.

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