I walked the empty Main Street of Farmville, Virginia, Sunday afternoon. Farmville is one of three homes of my youth: Gibsonton, Florida, where I was born and spent the first five years of my life; Floyd County, home from age 5-8 and again from 13-17; and Farmville, the place in between.
Sunday’s visit to Farmville came by accident. After breakfast with some biker friends at The Roanoker, I struck out alone on Virginia Highway 24, heading East to Appomatttox where — Appomattox County’s main sign proclaims — “where a nation reunited.” The jury is still out on whether or not our nation is united. In some ways, it is more divided than on that day in 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Uylsses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, but that is a topic for another day.
After a walk of the the grounds at Appomattox Courthouse Historical Park, I headed back to U.S. 460. Faced with the option of turning right for the 75 mile ride back to Roanoke or left for an 18-mile return to Farmville, I turned left and headed East to Prince Edward County to revisit five years of my youth.
I turned off at U.S. 15 South and looked for our old home. Took a while to find it. What was rolling farmland in the county in the late 50s and early 60s is now part of Farmville, smothered by a Wal-Mart, franchise restaurants, gas stations and convenience marts. The house sits empty in a lot overgrown with weeds and surrounded by the plastic of fast food and franchises. The open fields where we rode horses is a subdivision with tract homes. A short drive up U.S. 15, the large, sprawling Poplar Hill Plantation once owned by my step-father’s brother is now The Manor, a resort development that seems out of place just outside a town where empty storefronts line main street and the county’s history includes a shameful period when the local government, dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, closed the public schools and opened the all-white Prince Edward Academy.
Prince Edward Academy is still around, now called the Fuqua School because Prince Edward County native and prominent Atlanta business J.B. Fuqua rescued it from bankruptcy in 1992. Although the school now accepts minorities and has a minority enrollment of about five percent, it remains, to some, a symbol of racism in Prince Edward County.
Farmville is also home to Longwood University, which began life as the Farmville Female Seminary Assocation in 1839. The Commonwealth of Virginia took it over in 1884 and the school went through a variety of names before becoming Longwood College in 1949 and Longwood University in 2002. Five miles out of town is Hampden-Sydney College, a four-year private liberal arts school.
Along main street, the theater where I went most Saturdays to watch movie serials is emply. The insurance agency once housed there moved out recently. Gone also is the photography studio next door where a portrait photographer introduced me to the art of taking pictures. The Farmville Herald offices still sit on North Street. In 1959, a young editor named Ben Bowers gave me a job taking photos for the the paper. I was 11 and my first published photographs appeared in The Herald.
Farmville thrived in the heyday of big tobacco in Virginia. The town hosted its last tobacco auction in 2005, ending both an era and a way of life in the community. In many ways, big tobacco and the racism that defined Farmville and Prince Edward County fed off each other. The plantation owners in the early 1800s used slaves to work their huge, tobacco-producing operations. Farmville faces a lot of challenges as it tries to rebuild in modern, more-enlightened times.
As I headed out of town to U.S. 460 and the trip home, I realized the Farmville of my youth is long gone, replaced now by the plastic mediocrity of franchises, but part of that Farmville is best gone and lost in the past. My five years in Farmville marked an end of innocense, a realization of the horrors of racism and the reality of hate in America. As I turned West on U.S. 460 for the ride back towards Roanoke and the setting sun, I thought about passages from a book I read many years ago:
I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found. I think the true discovery of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty and immortal land is yet to come. I think the true discovery of our own democracy is still before us.
I think the enemy is here before us, too. I think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I, we, know that all his faces wear one mask. I think the enemy is single selfishness and compulsive greed. I think the enemy is blind, but has the brutal power of his blind grab.
That book? Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Home Again.