As a native-born Floridan, I arrived in Floyd at age 5 after a trip on a train pulled by one of the legendary 611 steam locomotives of Norfolk & Western Railway into Roanoke in 1952.
My mother, widowed after a dad I never knew died in an industrial accident in 1949, brought me home to her native Floyd County to try and rebuild a life devastated by the death of a beloved husband. We lived three years in Floyd until she remarried a local man who ran a sawmill operation in Prince Edward County and we moved to Farmville, where the county supervisors and school board refused a federal court order to integrate the public schools and closed them to replace education with a “whites-only” private school subsidized by county taxes.
I learned early on about the inbred racism of Virginia and when I wrote an essay about racism and hate at school was published by the local paper, a group of local white boys beat the crap out of me and branded me a “nigger lover.” With the help of a friend who also rebelled at the hate and racism knew where the Prince Edward County klavern of the Ku Klux Klan met, I crawled on my hands and knees through a woods to use a Yashicamat camera to photograph the meeting. I would be the first photo I ever sold for publication and started my life as a photojournalist. I was 12.
Publication of the photo also brought another beating by the local racists and threats against our family. My mother and stepfather, fed up with the racism of Prince Edward County, sold his sawmill to his brother and packed up with his three kids from a previous marriage, mom, myself and two new young kids from their marriage and moved us to Floyd County in 1961.
Floyd County had integrated schools but also had racism. Only a few African Americans lived in the county then and only a few black students attended the new county-wide high school that opened in 1961.
One of my first fights with one of my white classmates at Floyd County High School resulted from my friendship with a black classmate and time I spent at lunch with he and his friends at the high school cafeteria.
My photos and stories about the racist debacle of Prince Edward County helped convince Pete Hallman, then owner and editor of The Floyd Press, to hire me to write for the paper while still a student at the high school. Like most young men in high school, I coveted cars and girls — not necessarily in that order — and one of those I dated was a African American girl who lived in Christiansburg.
A window of my white 1957 Ford was broken, tires slashed and the “n-word” was scratched on the door after we were seen at the Starlight Drive-In together on a date. Our dates continued but as a “stealth relationship.”
In 1965, I graduated a year early from Floyd County High School and moved to Roanoke to enter college at The University of Virginia’s campus on that city and work at The Roanoke Times. One of the stories I was assigned to cover on a regular basis were meetings of the Ku Klux Klan in Patrick County. I learned Southwestern Virginia was integrated under law but not in the hearts and minds of those who still believed in white supremacy. I also learned that claims of “Southern Heritage” was little more than racist rationale to hate minorities.
The Times had a long internal debate on whether or not to publish photos of black brides in the social section. When the first photos appeared, readers sent copies back in with racist slurs written on the newsprint. The early days of Total Action Against Poverty in Roanoke was decried by local politicians as “just public welfare for blacks.”
When Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, I covered what started as a demonstration march on Melrose Avenue. It turned nasty when white Roanoke City Police officers lobed teargas canisters indiscriminately into the most-black crowd and started wielding nightsticks as clubs.
In 1969, I left Roanoke and took a reporting and photography job at The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, across the Mississippi River and near St. Louis. Alton was the site of a large prisoner of war prison for Confederate soldiers in the Civil War. It was also the town where local racists burned down the newspaper, dumped the printing press into the Mississippi and killed editor Elijah Lovejoy. an early martyr for freedom of the press.
Alton was the birthplace for James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing Martin Luther King. Alton may have been a town in the state called “The Land of Lincoln” and was the location of the fist debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephan Douglas, but it was also just as racist as the South I left behind in Virginia. The city council was all-white. So was the leadership of the police.
A racist patrol officer shot a suspected shoplifter and crippled him over suspicion of shoplifting a pair of $5 cufflinks from the downtown Sears. The cufflinks were never found on him and his lawsuit against the city required a special bond issue to finance the financial verdict.
The Klan operated in Southern Illinois and marched more than once in the city, always parading the Confederate flag as one of their proud “symbols.”
In 1981, Amy and I left Alton and moved to Washington, DC. Did we find racism there during our 23 years as residents? Absolutely. We found racists in government, especially among members of Congress. Sadly, some — like Senator George Allen and Congressman Virgil Goode — were Virginians. But others came from other parts of the country. Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s newsletters during out time there were littered with racist rants that Paul later claimed were written not by him but by a staff member. West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd had been a member of the Klan.
Republican and Democrats were racist. In sad ways, their racism was the only true bipartisan agreement among the parties.
In 2004, we left the National Capital Region and moved to Floyd County. I wondered then if I would find a more-enlightened community.
I first, I thought I saw hope. A mixed-race married couple owned and ran Oddfellas Cantina. A black chief deputy sat on the Sheriff’s Department and is now also a town councilman.
But the Board of Supervisors is all white. So are virtually all appointments to local boards and commissions. I still hear the “n-word” in conversations in local restaurants. When Barack Obama became President, we saw signs with racist slurs, discredited claims about his citizenship and false accusations that he was “Kenyan” or a “Muslim.”
Facebook is a repository of rampant racism. A post recently showed a picture of black activist Al Sharpton next to a Confederate flag with the claim that “This racist symbol…” and “the other is a flag.” Racial comments about the President dominate some of the groups dedicated to discussions about Floyd.
Yes, Floyd County has long been, and in too many ways still is, a haven for racism.
Sadly, it is just one part of a country where racism still thrives.