Watching the vice presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence Tuesday night brought back too many bad memories — not because of anything they discussed — but because the event occurred at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.
Longwood U. was Longwood College when I arrived in Farmville in 1956 after my mother — widowed when my father died in 1949 — married a Floyd County native who lived in Farmville at the time with three kids from his previous marriage and a sawmill and farm in Prince Edward County.
At the time, racism ruled Prince Edward County, controlled by white supremacists who ran the Board of Supervisors and the School Board and fought to avoid integration of schools ordered by the federal government.
As an eight year old, I didn’t understand much of the debate and was more concerned with little league baseball, a bicycle and a newspaper route that I had by age 11 along with a growing interest in photography.
But that world shattered when Prince Edward County shut down the public schools to avoid integration and white kids started attending classes in church basements, American Legion Halls and other temporary spots that made up the newly-formed Prince Edward Academy, an all-white private school supported by the local government and the ruling class of a county where tobacco was still king and bigotry was a way of life.
Too many of my fellow students tossed around the vile “n-word” in their rants against black kids who no longer had any schools in the county. Teachers at Prince Edward Academy used the slur openly in the classrooms.
Prince Edward County became a symbol of racism in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I came to hate the place and told my mother that I wanted to leave. She talked with my paternal grandmother in Florida about having me live with her and attend schools in the Tampa area.
In the sixth grade at Prince Edward Academy, I submitted an essay about living in a segregated society and I called the county “racist.” School officials called my mother in for a conference. Students called me a “n—-r lover” and I became a target of ridicule and fights.
But Ben Bowers, the news editor at The Farmville Herald, read the essay and submitted it to The Richmond News Leader for publication. He took an interest in my photography hobby and encouraged me to document life in Prince Edward County.
On a dark night in 1960, I walked alone through a thick forest about five miles outside of Farmville to covertly photograph a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. Publication of that photo made me a pariah among students and their parents.
I was considered a troublemaker and my mother and stepfather considered sending me to Fork Union Military Academy to get me away from Prince Edward County.
My mother decided instead that I would go live with my grandmother in Florida to start the eighth grade but the plan was shelved when she and my stepfather decided they wanted the entire family out of Prince Edward County. They sold the farm and the sawmill business and we moved to my stepfather’s family farm in Floyd County. We arrived in time for me to enter the eighth grade at Willis Elementary School before going to the new Floyd County High School when it opened a year later.
I returned to Prince Edward County in 1964 to interview students and others for an essay submitted to my English teacher, Ruth Hallman. She encouraged me to submit it for publication and it was printed as an OpEd piece in several newspapers.
The move from Prince Edward to Floyd was a change in locale but did not change my burning disgust with racism. My grandfather was a blatant racist and we argued constantly. He threw me out of his house more than once. I was also working for The Floyd Press as a reporter and photographer, and then owner and editor Pete Hallman mentored me in what it took to become a newspaperman.
After graduation from Floyd County High School in 1965, after skipping a year, I went to work as a reporter and photographer at The Roanoke Times. I volunteered to cover meetings of the Klan in Franklin and Patrick Counties and wrote about bigotry against minorities in Southwestern Virginia. When Martin Luther King fell to an assassin’s bullets, I covered racial unrest for the paper.
In 1969, I left Roanoke and moved to Alton, Illinois to take a new job as reporter, photographer and later columnist for The Telegraph. Alton was the birthplace of James Earl Ray, convicted as the killer of Dr. King. I covered many stories about racism in the Alton area and in nearby St. Louis.
Now, some 50 years later, I see racism rear its ugly head in the 2016 Presidential elections with candidate Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee and a man with a history of racism and a poster child of white supremacists who openly support him and praise his bigotry.
I see Trump signs in yards in Floyd County.
It appears, as a society, haven’t learned a damn thing.