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H. Spurgeon Moss: Educator, Farmer, Inspiration

In 1926, fourteen year old H. Spurgeon Moss faced a choice.  Moss was a tall, bespectacled lad who loved to read but seventh grade was the end of the line for black children in the segregated schools of Louisa County, Virginia.

Spin a blindfolded child and ask her to pin the tail in the middle of a map of Virginia and she could do a lot worse than Louisa County.  East of Charlottesville and north of Richmond, Louisa County is about five hundred square miles of small towns, old family farms, and a tangled crisscross of streams and rivers. 

In 1926, fourteen year old H. Spurgeon Moss faced a choice.  Moss was a tall, bespectacled lad who loved to read but seventh grade was the end of the line for black children in the segregated schools of Louisa County, Virginia. The Virginia Constitution of 1869 had mandated the creation of free public education for all, provided that “white and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school but in separate schools under the same general regulations as to management, usefulness, and efficiency.” (Louisa Historical Society) 

Sadly, the education of African-American children in the Jim Crow south seldom lived up to this mandate.  The few schools that existed for black children were usually poorly equipped log cabins, church buildings, or rooms in private homes, funded by African-American churches and northern philanthropists.  (Louisa County Historical Society)

Moss’s family valued hard work and education.  Grandfather Boykin (his mother’s father) had purchased five hundred acres beside the North Anna River in the northeast corner of Louisa County in 1877. How did Grandfather Boykin save enough to buy such a large plot of land? Mining gold? Or did he have a skilled trade? Either way, the land he purchased may still have had remnants from one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.  The Battle of the North Anna took place along the banks of the North Anna River the first week of May 1864. Sixty-seven thousand Union forces against fifty-three thousand Confederates with a casualty count of forty-two hundred men. 

Economic conditions in Louisa County were extremely difficult after the Civil War. Combined tax revenues in 1870 were one-fourth of what they had been in 1863, when property tax on slaves alone earned the county $58,389.  (Louisa Historical Society)   Grandfather Boykin purchased the land bordering the North Anna River, registered the deed for his land at the county courthouse, and hired an attorney to draw up a will so that when he died, the land would go to his daughter.  Some neighbors thought it foolish to pay good money to a lawyer just to prove the land he was raising hogs on was actually his, but Grandfather Boykin had lived in Louisa County long enough to know that everything had to be written down, certified, and in the court house or some sheriff would come knocking on his door to take it all away.  Sections were sold off over the years, a few acres here, a few acres there, some to pay for education, some to cover hospital bills, eventually whittling down the farm to 116 acres in 1926. (Daily Progress, July 26, 1970, A New Dam Brings an End to Old Ways.)

Fourteen year old H. Spurgeon Moss had grown up fishing on the banks of the North Anna River. He’d grown up raising hogs, chickens, and cattle.  His precious few spare moments were spent reading under the large oak in his front yard.  Moss wanted to further his education so he could help his people, but that meant leaving Louisa County.  It meant leaving the farm his grandfather had built and moving one hundred miles north to Washington D.C.  He packed his clothes, kissed his parents goodbye, and road in the back of a segregated Greyhound bus up to Washington DC for high school. Relatives met him at the bus station.  He made the honor roll at Dunbar High School, (The Washington Post, February 24, 1929) and worked his way through school as a dishwasher then as a waiter, graduating from Minor Teachers College with a bachelor of science in education in 1934. (Miner Teachers College was the principal school to train black teachers in Washington DC for more than 70 years.) Mr. Moss would eventually take graduate level classes at Virginia State College, Virginia Union University, and Boston University, and earn a Master’s Degree in Guidance Counseling at the University of Virginia.

His first teaching job was at segregated Mount Garland Elementary School. He taught fifth and sixth grade.  The arrival of this tall, handsome educator must have caused quite a stir.  Mr. Moss was quickly promoted to principal. A couple of years later, in 1940, Louisa County consolidated white schools and converted some of the surplus white school buildings to black schools. Mr. Moss decided to go back to teaching at Plum Tree Elementary School. He transferred to the Louisa Training School, Louisa County’s only black high school (built in 1929, too late for Moss to attend.) He taught biology and chemistry, and served as assistant principal. In 1953, Louisa County closed the Training School and opened the A.G. Richardson High School with an enrollment of 293 students and eleven teachers. Mr. Moss was the social studies teacher and assistant principal. As the social studies teacher, he’d take busloads of students on field trips to the state capitol to see how state government functioned and to shake hands with their representatives.  “Hitch your wagon to a star,” he’d tell them.  Mr. Moss’s concern for his students was legendary.  (Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018)

Teaching full time didn’t cover the costs of raising a family and maintaining a one-hundred acre farm.  Even with the added responsibilities as an assistant principal, Mr. Moss needed to supplement his income.  For year he traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey to wait tables during summer break. “I made more money there in the summer than I made teaching the rest of the year,” he said (Daily Progress, July 26, 1970, A New Dam Brings an End to Old Ways.) Former students remembered Mr. Moss with affection.  “He was a very down to earth person, personable. He was so encouraging to students.  In the summers, he always went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to work, and he would bring a group of high school students with him. He secured jobs for these young people at the various hotels there along the Boardwalk.   He gave them work experience and he was their chaperone during the time they were away from home, and he took very good care of them.  He made sure they went and did what they were supposed to do while they were there in New Jersey.” ( Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018 via telephone) 

In May, 1954, the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case came before the Supreme Court. In a rare unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court effectively overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal” and declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional.  Virginia Senator Harry S. Byrd was outraged. He proposed “Massive Resistance” to the court’s ruling and in 1956 the Virginia state government adopted a policy to block the desegregation of public schools.  Schools shut down in Prince Edward County, parts of Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk. Unlike these places, schools in Louisa County never closed.  Segregation remained deeply entrenched in the cities, but in the farmlands and outlying areas segregation was less pronounced.  In areas that had only one grocery or hardware store, a kind of natural integration occurred, even friendships.

Mr. Moss came together with other educators to develop a plan to integrate the public schools. This was locally referred to as the “Freedom of Choice” plan and was sent to parents and announced in the local newspaper, The Central Virginian, on March 30, 1966. The intention was the elimination of segregation based on race, color or national origin.  Students and parents had thirty days to choose the school the student would attend the next school year. (Louisa County Historical Society) Mr. Moss encouraged several of his students to choose white schools.  The plan did not achieve total desegregation but it began the process. In doing so, Louisa County didn’t experience the anger, turmoil, or closing of public schools that many other Virginia counties and cities experience.  Peace and civility were maintained largely due to the foresight of Mr. Moss along with other visionary educators such as Mr. Harry Nuckols. (https://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/miner-teachers-college-building-african-american-heritage-trail)

By 1968, Mr. Moss had taught school in Louisa County for thirty-six years. His wife, Ruth Moss, had taught for thirty-eight years. They’d put all three of their children through college.  His oldest daughter taught English in Fairfax, his son taught industrial arts in Fairfax, and his youngest daughter, the wife of a former Army officer, was secretary to the Dean of the College of Dental Science at Howard University.  He’d stopped going to Atlantic City every summer to wait tables and looked forward to retirement.  He raised brood sows and would sell about forty young pigs each fall.  He had eight cows as well as turkeys and chickens. His favorite animals were his six saddle horses. Farming was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He still sat under the large oak tree in the front yard to read.  This was where he wanted to grow old. This was what his grandchildren called “Grandfather’s Zoo.” 

In late February 1968, when the forsythias were starting to bud, two white men drove up the newly paved road to his farmhouse in a truck with the county seal on it. Chickens scattered when the white men drove up.   “Mr. Moss,” one of the men called out, “the county sent us to survey this section of land.  I just wanted to let you know we’ll be working on your property.”

“What’s the survey for?”

“I don’t rightly know, Mr. Moss,” one of the men answered.  “The county says jump and we jump.” Mr. Moss smiled good-naturedly and waved the men on.  

The white men were still on his property when he came home from work that evening.  He saw their truck drive away just after sundown.  They came the next day, waving to Mr. Moss as they drove by.   After the second day of strangers on his property, Mr. Moss decided it was time for him to take a look at what they were doing. He saddled his favorite mare and rode the well-worn trail down to the river. Springtime was still a few weeks away and no place on earth was prettier in the springtime than his farm.  He felt a deep pride in all his family had accomplished.  Neither slavery nor Jim Crow could stop his grandfather from building the farm. In time, he would pass the land to his children and grandchildren. 

He rode past the stretch of pines where the deer herds liked to settle down for the night.  They left their imprint on the soft beds of pine straw. He was coming up on his cattle pasture when he saw the orange survey markers.  Rows and rows of them, all the way down to the North Anna River.  What was the county doing?  Putting in a new road? Building a new bridge across the North Anna River?  Either way, he didn’t much appreciate the county not sending him a notice that the surveyors would be on his land or what they were doing.  He’d lived in Louisa County almost all his life, just stepping away to go up to Washington DC for his education.  He’d paid his taxes and contributed his time and talents. The very least the county owed him was to tell him the truth.

By April, Mr. Moss was making real progress bringing black and white students together. He was guidance counselor for the newly integrated Louisa County High School.  A.G. Richardson High School, where he used to teach social studies, had been converted to an elementary school and renamed Thomas Jefferson Elementary school, much to the disappointment of the African-American community. As Reverend Lewis would recall, “The only thing was that when they were renaming schools, we weren’t abreast of that so much that the names of our schools were maintained. That got away from us and that’s how Thomas Jefferson Elementary and Trevilians Elementary were renamed. Those schools were originally named for a black person because they were black schools during segregation. So we lost the names of those schools.”  (Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018)

Four days into the month of April, 1968, the news of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination swept across the nation.   Students came into Mr. Moss’s office with tears in their eyes.  He’d listen to their fears, share his wisdom, and remind them that they were not alone. On the day of Dr. King’s funeral, four hundred Louisa County citizens, mostly African American, gathered at the First Baptist Church.  A few clouds marred the morning sky. Daffodils beckoned and azaleas barely hinted at their true colors.  The mourners clutched handkerchiefs and held hands as they waited for the pastor to call for their pilgrimage to begin.  He gave the signal and they walked in silence the three blocks from the church to the Louisa County Courthouse.  If they spoke, it was in reverential whispers.  No music. No singing.  No band played on this spring day, not at this memorial. They walked past the old confederate war memorial, erected in front of the courthouse before most of them were born. The single confederate soldier cast in bronze, holding his rifle at his side and nestled within a granite block, indifferent to the grief-stricken mourners.

The pastor of the Trinity Parish walked up the courthouse steps and addressed the crowd. He stood in front of white marble pillars and offered up a heartfelt prayer for peace, love and brotherhood.  The pastor of the Church of Christ of Charlottesville spoke next.  He acknowledged the fear that had gripped all who gathered.   “We won’t be afraid anymore,” he said barely above a whisper.

Those in attendance answered, “Amen.”

“Our quest for equal rights will not be denied.”

“Amen.”

The world was off-balance, as if the solid land under their feet had shifted.  After the speakers, after the final prayers, they all left in silence. They returned to their homes and their jobs, and if Mr. and Mrs. Moss were among the mourners they returned to their farm.  (Richmond Times Dispatch, April 10, 1968, Several Hundred Attended Memorial Service for Dr. King at Louisa Courthouse)

Spring was a busy time for farmers.  Mr. Moss took a few minutes extra with his favorite mare that morning, brushing her mane. She rubbed against him, as if she knew what troubled him.  Mr. Moss had kept saddle horses all his life and still marveled at their strength and gentleness. He stopped and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket.  He’d felt so tense since he’d learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He was worried about his children and grandchildren. Worried about his students. Worried about the county’s tentative steps toward equality. Sometimes life was nothing but a truckload of worries. Only his farm gave him peace.

“Spurgeon,” he heard his wife call from the farmhouse.  “Spurgeon, you have a phone call.” Their neighbor from a nearby farm was on the phone.  “He says it’s important.”

“Tell him to hold on.” Mr. Moss put away the brush and headed to the house. Ruth handed him the receiver.  “Hello,” he said. 

“Spurgeon, did you see the news? We’re about to be boiled out.”

Mr. Moss didn’t understand.   He’d seen images on the television of buildings on fire, of the police with dogs and guns, of people running and screaming.  “What? What are you talking about?”

“Front page news,” the neighbor said. Moss grabbed his hat and car keys and was halfway out the door when he stopped. These were uncertain times and he didn’t like the idea of leaving his wife all alone.  He kissed her on the cheek and told her to keep the doors locked.

Mr. Moss handed the drugstore clerk a dime and picked up the April 10, 1968 Richmond Times-Dispatch.  The main headline was about Dr. King’s funeral. Thousands Attend King Rites.  “My, my, my,” he murmured under his breath. Below the headline was the haunting image of black-clad mourners walking beside a mule-drawn wagon bearing the shrouded coffin. Jackie Kennedy was in attendance, the newspaper said, as was Bobby Kennedy. But it was the other, much smaller headline that mentioned Louisa County: Vepco Plans Louisa County Nuclear Plant. 

VEPCO, short for the Virginia Electric and Power Company, planned to turn part of the North Anna River into an 11,000 acre lake and to build on its shore a half-billion dollar nuclear generating plant. The power company said the plant would have a total output of four million kilowatts, which equal the present generating capacity of the entire Vepco system. The plant would be built in three or four units.  The first would have a capacity of 800,000 kilowatts and would be completed in 1974, Vepco said.

The newspaper reported on a meeting between Vepco’s senior vice presidents, T. Justin Moore Jr., Vepco President John M. McGurn, and Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr..  Other Vepco officials sat down to a two-hour private meeting in Louisa with the county’s business and political leaders and told them of the plant and the lake. No one bothered to tell the affected landowners.

Mr. Moss walked out of the drug store without even realizing it. He was standing on the sidewalk reading the newspaper.  Shoppers walked by but he didn’t see them.  He felt the burning sting of betrayal.   As Mr. Moss would later tell a reporter, “Then I read in the paper that county officials had given Vepco right-of-way, and assured them that the citizens of the county would cooperate 100 per cent.  Surveyors had been on my land months before and when I asked them what they were surveying, they said they didn’t know.  I wonder why the supervisors didn’t tell us.  We didn’t know one thing about it until we read it in the papers or heard it on the television.  It was a terrible bombshell.” (A New Dam Brings and End to Old Ways, Daily Progress, page C4, July 26, 1970, by Jerry Simpson)

Mr. Moss looked down Main Street. There was the police department. There was the hardware store. There was the County Courthouse with the statue of the confederate soldier in front. Did everyone know except him?   He kept reading:

Besides the boating and the recreation business the lake was expected to bring into the predominately-agricultural county, the plant itself was expected to add more than $900,000 to Louisa’s annual tax revenues.  It would employ between 75 and 100 persons and add a payroll of $750,000 each year to the county’s economy.  “It’s the biggest thing and has more potential than anything that has ever hit Louisa.  It is terrific,” said one of the business leaders who attended the Louisa meeting.

“The supervisors have assured Vepco that Louisa people will cooperate with them in every possible way,” said another leader, the Rev. Joe T. Carson, who heads the Louisa County Industrial Development Corp.

From neighboring Orange County, R. Lindsay Gordon III, chairman of the county’s board of supervisors, call the lake “manna from heaven”.  Most of the profits will come to Louisa and Spotsylvania, Gordon said, but Orange will benefit also. “Anytime that much money is being spent, some of it is going to rub off on surrounding areas,” Gordon said.

Vepco planned to form the lake by building a 75-to-100 foot high dam across the North Anna River near Smith’s Mill Bridge, just west of the Hanover County line. The dam would form a 17-square mile lake, with 100 miles of shoreline. Most of the lake site is wooded.  A Vepco spokesman said no more than 75 homes would have to be evacuated to make way for the lake.

“No more than seventy-five homes!” Smith’s Mill Bridge was only two miles from Mr. Moss’s farmhouse, as the crow flies. His property touched the bank of the North Anna River.  Was his farm going to be flooded?  What would happen to his pigs, his cattle, and his beloved saddle horses?  What would happen to all the wildlife on his property?  The deer and rabbits and wild turkeys?  Today of all days, first Dr. King’s funeral and now this, it was a punch in the gut like he’d never felt before.

The generating plant itself would go up about five miles up the lake from the dam, on the Louisa shore. The plant would use an entirely new type of water cooling system. The plant would take in water from the lake, use it power the generating units, and then release it into cooling lagoons, a series of large ponds that would be diked off from the lake. As the water passed through the lagoons it would cool to normal lake temperature. Then it would be fed back into the lake.

“Company officials gave no date for the completion of the second unit, and they said they had no idea when the final units would be added.  However, it is believed the second unit is being planned for 1975 and 1976. Ragone estimated that the total cost of the dam, the lake site, and all the units together would probably come to more than $500 million.” (April 10, 1968 Richmond Times Dispatch, Vepco plans Louisa County Nuclear Plant)

The article concluded with a map of Louisa County showing the proposed dam and power plant sites.  The proposed lake was right on top of Mr. Moss’s farm.  How would he break the news to his wife?  How would he break the news to his children? The land was their legacy. He folded the newspaper and returned to his car. He returned to his beloved farm and quietly handed the newspaper to Ruth.  She read it with the same shocked disbelief he had felt.

His heart could barely take it, one piece of bad news after another.  He walked down to the small creek on his property and sat on a fallen log.  Small frogs jumped in the creek at his arrival.  April was a beautiful month in central Virginia.  Warm enough to enjoy the sunshine but cool enough to keep the mosquitoes away.   Now he knew what his neighbor had meant when he said they were about to be “boiled out.” The surveyors had left orange markers all over his property, now it all made sense.  They must be for the proposed dam, lake, and nuclear power plant.  

The history of Mr. Moss is part of a larger work by author Carolyn O’Neal exploring the impact of the North Anna Nuclear Power Station on the citizens of Louisa County.  She is also exploring the impact of Lake Anna, which was built to provide fresh water to the nuclear power station to keep the reactors cool.  Many farms were condemned and much private land was confiscated to build the lake and power plant. 

If you or your family were impacted when Virginia Electric and Power Company dammed the North Anna River and built the North Anna Nuclear Power Station, please share your story.  Leave a reply below.

Notes:

Three schools in Virginia were named for Dr. Archie Gibbs Richardson: elementary schools in Culpeper and Blackstone, and A.G. Richardson High School in Louisa. Richardson was a prominent African-American educator and a prolific speaker and writer. His papers can be found at Johnston Memorial Library, Virginia State University. The Lexington native graduated from Virginia State University in 1927.  He held a Master’s Degree from Butler University in Indianapolis, a Doctorate of Education from Columbia University and an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree awarded in 1957 from Virginia State University. Richardson served eight years as principal of the Mecklenburg Training School in South Hill. He worked for a year as director of academics at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville.  (Saint Paul’s College was established by former slave Russell Solomon James, a contemporary of Booker T. Washington, in1888.)  In 1936 he was appointed Assistant State Supervisor of Negro Education with the Virginia Department of Education. When that post became obsolete with school integration, he was appointed Associate Supervisor of Elementary and Secondary Education. Then, in 1966 he was named Associate Director of Education, a position he held until his retirement in 1966. Dr. Richardson was the first African American to be named to the staff of the Virginia Department of Education.

(Richmond Times Dispatch, October 19, 1979, A.G. Richardson, Educator, Dies http://louisaheritage.org/schools/agrichardson.htm A.G. Richardson history from the Louisa County History Society)

By Carolyn O'Neal

Author of eco-novel KINGSLEY and award winning short story SILENT GRACE.

2 replies on “H. Spurgeon Moss: Educator, Farmer, Inspiration”

Thank you so much! Mr. Moss was a true inspiration. With his proceeds from settlement with Vepco, he set up scholarships for students to go to college. An elementary school in Louisa County is named after him. It’s important his work not be lost.

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