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WATCH: Legacy List goes back to school for an important lesson in education history

Legacy List Green Springs Elementary Rebecca Silberman and Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly and Rebecca Silberman stand in front of their Louisa County home, converted from a 1940's elementary school.

How many of us have ever wondered, or even dreamed, of living in a school? Spacious rooms, a big kitchen, an auditorium with a stage – the possibilities are endless!

For Rebecca Silberman and Brian Kelly, that dream came true in 1994 when they moved into a historic elementary school in Louisa County, Virginia.

As an artist, Rebecca especially loved the large, well-lit rooms for her studio, with enough storage for her eclectic collections that supply her mixed media art and photography. Brian’s passion for handyman projects made the school a sustainable, eco-friendly space to raise their family.

And, over time, even 10,000 square feet of space with room to spare fills up. So Brian and Rebecca called in Legacy List with Matt Paxton to tidy the clutter and create space amid 30 years of accumulated heirlooms, art pieces, and knick-knacks.

But, in the process of helping Rebecca and Brian clear out a couple of rooms in what was formerly Green Springs Elementary School, Matt and his team found a whole lot more than personal items. They discovered a rich family history and a connection to a deeper legacy of the struggle for educational equity in Virginia.

Avi Hopkins, part of the Legacy List team, noticed that Green Springs’ architecture is similar to Moton High School in Farmville – one of the plaintiff schools named in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education suit. The 1954 Brown decision struck down “separate but equal” segregated education between white children and children of color in the United States. Moton is now a museum dedicated to its involvement in the historic battle for educational equity.

Moton High School Farmville Virginia
Moton High School in Farmville, VA, 2014 (Photo Credit: William T. Ziglar, Jr., used under the Wiki Creative Commons license.)

In response to the Supreme Court ruling, many southern states banded together in “massive resistance” – including the Commonwealth. As a result, Virginia closed public schools to prevent integration. Some localities, such as Prince Edward County where Moton School was shuttered, granted white children vouchers to attend private school, while children of color were left without options.

Virginia was poised to close every public school in the state.

Green Springs Elementary was a white school with no intention of integrating. Unlike Moton, it never closed. But when the Supreme Court overturned Virginia’s tuition grants based on non-compliance, it was only a matter of time before Green Springs, like other Louisa County Schools, would be forced to desegregate. Matt and his team uncovered the district’s struggle to find options when faced with the inevitable.

As county education officials prepared to continue the fight against integration, the Louisa County PTA – both Black parents and white parents – came together to persuade the school board to change its mind.

“The documents showed that the local families and farmers forced desegregation of the Louisa County schools,” said Paxton. “They wanted all kids to have a good education, and they basically disregarded political desires and did what was right.”

“We found lots of pictures of the school diversity pretty soon thereafter,” Paxton continued.

“It makes me so happy to know that a tiny slice of local American history was carved out in this building,” said Rebecca. “We are able now to fully honor this place by being the current stewards carrying this history into the future. I am grateful for and wonder at our good fortune in finding this home and community even more now.”

Brian was also appreciative. “We have been so lucky to have the space to accommodate three generations here,” he said. “We hope, having this knowledge and documentation, that there are more creative and interesting incarnations to come for this place beyond our time here.”

The Legacy List team discover more history and stories from Brian and Rebecca – from Civil War battles to lady’s wear – on this week’s episode. Tune in to Legacy List with Matt Paxton Monday at 9:00 p.m. on VPM to learn more about this family’s unique legacy, or stream it from the VPM website or through your PBS Passport.