Dad’s segregation experience spurs banker to achieve
Chaquita Venable is seizing opportunities denied her dad, Clem, by the segregation and shutdown of public schools in his Virginia county over 50 years ago.
Clem Venable had a long career as a horticulturist and also loved to fish and hunt. But he always said what he loved most was attending family graduations — like his daughter Chaquita’s from Virginia’s Old Dominion University in 2010.
That’s partly because he never got the chance to graduate himself.
In 1959, when he was 9 years old, the local Prince Edward County school system closed its doors altogether. The schools in Farmville, Virginia, 65 miles southwest of Richmond, chose to defy federal integration orders and instead created whites-only private academies financed by state tuition grants.
By the time a U.S. Supreme Court decision forced the schools back open in 1964, Clem had missed five crucial years of schooling and never fully recovered from the reading, writing, and other core skills he had missed. He dropped out and went to cut wood with his dad and help the family.
Eventually, Clem took a job at Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville and stayed 30 years in the horticulture department. He died in 2013 and saw all five of his children earn college degrees.
“My dad told me not to worry about people calling me a nerd because I studied hard and hit the books,” says Chaquita, who moved from Roanoke, Virginia, to Denver for the chance to manage a Wells Fargo banking store. It’s the latest step in a banking career that began in January 2011 with a part-time teller position in Richmond.
“Dad said, ‘Your education will take you a long way. Get it while you can because you can’t get back missed opportunities.’ That’s what we’ve all done.”
Note: See Chaquita share her story in a video (above) that joins Vera Jessie’s school integration story in The Untold Stories Collection celebrating the African American experience in history and today. Share your own stories using the #MyUntold hashtag.
Chaquita is member of the company’s Black/African American Connection Team Member Network and volunteers at local schools. She says she often sees her dad in the students she talks to about using education to rise above whatever situations they find themselves in.
One talk took her to the Adult Development Center in Richmond, where the subject was education and financial literacy for students earning their general equivalency diplomas.
“They had no motivation about getting an education, and didn’t know about what had happened in Farmville,” she says. “When I explained the history, at least they realized just how important education could be. Several came up to me afterward and thanked me for sharing my story.”
Civil rights legacy
The school shutdown in Virginia in 1959 was bitterly ironic for Farmville’s black students. Their two-week student strike and walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School in 1951 — to protest overcrowding and unequal conditions with the community’s whites-only schools — led the NAACP to file suit on their behalf.
That legal action became one of five lawsuits making up the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The court found separate but equal schools a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and ordered school desegregation.
The school Clem was forced to leave in 1959 is now the Robert Russa Moton Museum, a National Historic Landmark known as the “student birthplace of America’s civil rights movement.” Site of the 1951 strike, it had become an elementary school in 1953 when Prince Edward built a new county high school for black students. The Lest We Forget Scholarship, established by museum supporters, paid for Chaquita’s education.
Justin Reid, the museum’s acting director, says Wells Fargo has been the Moton Museum’s leading education and programming sponsor since it opened a new permanent exhibition in 2013.
“The bank has been continuously engaged with us — both in financial support ($66,000) and board leadership ? from the beginning,” Justin says. “They’re helping us make sure what happened here is not forgotten and telling one of the truly great untold stories in the nation’s struggle for civil rights.”
Chaquita says the comment that continues to fire her passion for education is something she heard her dad tell a USA Today reporter in 2004. The newspaper was writing about Farmville’s first honorary graduation ceremony, in 2004, for students locked out in the 1950s and 1960s, as the community sought to make amends.
Would Clem go?
“He said, ‘I don’t need them to give me a piece of paper now. What I needed they can’t give me back!’ ” she says. “That’s motivated me to take every opportunity I have, including all those Wells Fargo has provided, and make the most of them.
“What students fought for and won here is something no one should ever forget or take for granted.”