Shakeup at Virginia’s Massive Resistance-linked scholarship fund concerns advocates

Civil rights advocates and elected officials are worried about the future of Virginia’s Brown v. Board Scholarship Committee. The legislatively-created body had been expanded to support the children of those impacted by Massive Resistance-era school closures, but changes in membership and funding issues are raising eyebrows.

In the 1950s and 60s, instead of complying with a court order to integrate schools, many Virginia public schools shut down instead of allowing Black students in. And about 50 years later, the state’s legislature approved the creation of a scholarship fund, run by elected officials and citizen members, to support those impacted.

When the scholarship started in 2004, it served about 30 or more students, but as time passed that number dwindled as those directly impacted by Massive Resistance aged out. It only supported two students during the 2022-2023 school years. The legislature voted unanimously to expand eligibility to the descendants of those impacted last year.

But at a meeting of the committee in December, Hampton-area Senator Mamie Locke noted someone was missing from the committee: Joan Johns Cobbs, the sister of one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits that led to Brown vs. Board.

“Why she was not reappointed is beyond me, it just baffles me,” Locke told Radio IQ. Locke said Cobbs’ presence on the committee helped keep the continuity of the body’s mission.

In an email, Governor Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said Cobbs had left the state and was no longer eligible for membership, but in a phone call Cobbs said she has long held dual residency in New Jersey and Virginia and that was never an issue with her appointment before.

Cobbs admitted her term had expired and wasn’t surprised when she wasn’t reappointed, but she said she would like to return to the committee if asked. Absent a request from Youngkin, however, she hopes the committee continues to support the children of those impacted by Massive Resistance.

“I just hope the money is extended to continue the scholarships in the future,” Cobbs said. “I think it has benefited and made some of those students who missed their own education, made them happier by the fact that their children could benefit from it.”

In a follow up request for clarification on Cobbs’ lack of reappointment, Martinez said, “Governor Youngkin is grateful for Joan Johns Cobbs’ service and dedication to the Commonwealth since 2015.”

But money in the fund may soon run out – the committee has just over $900,000 left in its reserves. Requests for federal funds, supported by Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are in the U.S. Senate budget, but are uncertain in a GOP-controlled House.

Still, those involved in the scholarship hope a $5 million funding proposal will be part of the state’s budget negotiations in the coming months.

Among those still fighting is Prince Edward County resident and former Journalist Ken Woodley who’s written extensively about the impacts from Massive Resistance in his hometown. Woodley helped the scholarship get off the ground 20 years ago and he said he wrote a grant for the federal funding now hanging in limbo. He also noted he was unable to find new funds for the program in Youngkin’s proposed budget released last week.

In the meantime, he reached out directly to the House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore for state money.

Attempts to reach Kilgore’s office were not returned, but Woodley said he received assurance from Kilgore directly in the last two weeks that the funding request would make it in the state’s biennial budget before the end of the 2024 session.

“I think it’s crucial the General Assembly approve the $5 million budget amendment that Kilgore will bring forward,” Woodley said, calling the funding a moral obligation. “The state expanded the program, so they need to fund the scholarship to make sure that expanded goal can be met.”

In a statement, Youngkin’s office said the governor would review any proposal when it comes to his desk.

As for Cobbs’ absence from the committee, he said he was disappointed by the move, but he had confidence in newer appointees. Among them is Cameron Patterson from Farmville’s Robert Russa Moton Museum, which focuses on the state’s fight over integration. He was the pick to replace Cobbs, according to Younkin’s office.

“I can’t think of a reason why the Governor would ‘kick her off,’ but I certainly wish she’d been on there,” he said, before suggesting whoever remains on the board will have the power to make the body “as strong as it wants to be.”

In a brief interview following the December committee meeting, Youngkin appointee Barbara Inman, who is Vice President of Hampton University’s student services department, said she hadn’t heard anything from the governor about his priorities for the committee, but she was optimistic about its future success.

“The expansion [of eligibility] is wonderful, so I’m looking forward to the scholarship assisting those seeking higher education for those who are interested,” she said.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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