On what was described as “a beautiful spring day in the middle of fall,” thunder could be heard yesterday during a ceremony dedicating University of Mary Washington’s James Farmer Hall.
As Dr. James L. Farmer Jr. was remembered by numerous speakers – professors, current UMW students, members of the UMW Board of Visitors (BOV), and former Farmer students – the gathering of about 100 people on Campus Walk could discern strains of his distinctive booming voice. The BOV voted in July of 2020 to rename the former Trinkle Hall in honor of the late civil rights icon who taught at Mary Washington for a dozen years.
COVID protocol prevented an official observance of the Board action until yesterday afternoon. Members of the community stood on Campus Walk adjacent to the bust of Farmer, which faces the building now bearing his name.
In the brief but moving ceremony, President Troy Paino said Farmer’s legacy is alive and well on campus today. And BOV Rector Heather Crislip ’95 called the occasion “long overdue.”
Jeff McClurken, a professor of history and chief of staff to Paino, had been a student of Dr. Farmer. When he arrived at Mary Washington 28 years ago, McClurken said, he had the privilege of being regaled once a week for three hours. “It was powerful – even transformative – listening to a living legend.”
Long after his death, Farmer continues to impact students. Brianna Reaves, Student Government Association president, described Farmer as “a visionary like none other.” Noting his role in organizing the Freedom Rides, she said learning about Farmer instilled in her “the danger of thinking small when it comes to change.”
In 1942, at age 22, Farmer co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which organized protests of segregated facilities in the 1940s and 1950s. CORE, under Farmer’s leadership, led the Freedom Rides in 1961 into several southern states, including Virginia, in a nonviolent test of Supreme Court rulings that outlawed segregation in interstate transportation and bus terminals. Farmer, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and others organized the 1963 March on Washington.
Reaves declared: “The Freedom Rides will go on!” She said it is impossible for students to leave Mary Washington without taking a little bit of James Farmer with them.
Charles Reed Jr., who graduated in 2011 and serves on the BOV, said he had never heard of Farmer when he enrolled at Mary Washington. Now, he added, he will never forget him.
Reed was one of 40 college students nationwide to earn a place in the PBS 50th anniversary commemoration of the Freedom Rides, a milestone that UMW marked by bringing a 1960s-era bus to campus for an exhibit and presentations that included many original Freedom Riders. Reed described the 10-day bus tour that traced the 1961 route as “life-changing.” The business administration major’s first exposure to the social justice warrior was during James Farmer: Civil Rights and the Great Debaters, a first-year seminar on the life and legacy of the late history professor.
What Reed learned is that Farmer helped pave the way for him, along with other Black students, to enroll in schools like Mary Washington and have their horizons broadened.
“We are all better because of the work of Dr. Farmer,” Reed said.