Although my career has taken me around the world (several times over), the Commonwealth of Virginia has been home for 57 of my 74 years on this orb called Earth.
Born in Tampa, FL, my home for the first five years of existence and where my father died in an industrial accident when I was nine months old, my mother decided it was time to return to her birthplace in the Old Dominion to try and restart our lives.
I still remember that sleeper-car train ride from Tampa to Roanoke, with the last leg behind one of the legendary “611” locomotives. The drive wheels of that massive engine towered over me when Mom took a photo after our arrival.
We lived in an apartment over the Hoback Furniture Store on Main Street (where the rear parking lot of Skyline National Bank sits) for three years before she married a Floyd County man then living in Farmville, so I was in our three homes during the first eight years of my life.
Farmville was the county seat of Prince Edward County, governed by a racist board of supervisors and school board that closed the public schools rather than integrate, as ordered by the federal government and an act of Congress. They opened a “private” all-white school, while the children of color had no school.
I didn’t understand why such actions were taken. My African American friends told me that it was “the way America is.” I wrote an essay about it, but my elementary school teacher (who taught us in an American Legion hall), returned it and said, “this is not a topic you should discuss openly.” So I took it to Ben Bowers, then an editor for The Farmville Herald, along with a photo I shot secretly from the woods of a Klan meeting in the county.
Bowers said the paper’s owners would not publish the photo or the essay, but offered to send it to a friend at the Richmond News-Leader. His friend did get it published. Bowers also offered me a part-time gig shooting photos for the Herald, as long as I stayed away from the Klan.
Living in such a racist environment was one of the reasons our family left Farmville in 1961 and moved back to the native home of my mother and step-father — Floyd County. I began school at the new county-wide Floyd County High the next year.
A visit to Pete Hallman, of the family that owned The Floyd Press then, became a full-time job after he reviewed my file of photos and stories. I worked there during my three years in high school, then at The Roanoke Times for four+ years, where I again found myself shooting Klan meetings, this time in Franklin and Patrick counties. Then I moved to St. Louis to work for The Evening Telegraphy in Alton, IL, just across the Mississippi River, before moving to Alton itself for most of our 12 years.
Alton was the birthplace of James Earl Ray, the man who may or may not have assassinated Martin Luther King. He said he did, then claimed he did not, but was convicted of it and died in prison (after escaping once). Some of King’s family still think he was “set up” and someone else killed the civil rights leader.
Interest in Ray reached absurd heights. When the police station in East Alton was replaced, the jail cell, they said, was the first to house him as a criminal as a young man. A couple bought the cell and erected it in their home as a “tourist attraction.”
Ray’s birth certificate reported he was born at home. I visited the home and found it was then owned by an African-American couple, who didn’t know it was his birthplace and were shocked to learn it was. The house later burned down. No one was home when the fire started. Arson, the fire inspector said, but no one was ever charged.
Alton also has a hilltop monument dedicated to Elijah Lovejoy, an editor who died trying to put out a fire set by a pro-slavery mob because he supported freeing the ones called “property” by their owners and “masters.”
Lovejoy died from that mob’s actions and became a martyr to Freedom of the Press. A piece of his press, recovered from the river, sat in the lobby of the paper that was my employer for 12 years.
Alton was also home to the latest prison that housed Confederate soldiers taken by the Union Army during the Civil War. Many southerners died there. A few stones from that prison sat by a parking lot off Mill Street in downtown Alton.
Finally, the city was also the location of the last debate between Abraham Lincoln and Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas. For many years, the location of a public parking lot near downtown. They finally erected a memorial to it after we left the area in 1981.
Over the dozen years there, I wrote many stories about race and racism, including several columns, which brought threats from those who still felt that those who were not Anglo-Saxon white were, somehow, inferior.
I thought about the debate last week when one of Virginia’s newly-elected right-wing extremists, Wren Williams in Rocky Mount, introduced legislation outlawing any teaching or mention of “critical race theory” in public schools and also promoted firing and prosecution of any teacher who teaches anything related to the theory.
Ironic that Williams used the Lincoln-Douglas debate as a source of information that his proposed law said should support his claims, but his bill listed activist Frederick Douglass as the opponent to Abraham Lincoln in those debates.
Our guess is that Williams’ knowledge of critical race theory is as flawed as his knowledge of who were actually the debaters in Illinois. Most opponents of the theory, we’ve found, have not read the theory and have no actual understanding of it.
Did he understand what was actually said by Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in the debate? Let’s take a look at the historical text:
I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon Negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.
Yes, this was what Lincoln, who as President later issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves, said earlier in his career. Harsh words from both, not ones that should define what America is supposed to be.
Citing that debate leads me to consider Williams racist. I say this as a man who has spent nearly 60 years fighting racism as it existed in Prince Edward County in 1958 and, sadly, still exists around us here today.
Racism caused me to choose journalism as a career in my pre-teen years. It was one of the reasons our family left Prince Edward County and moved to Floyd County in 1961.
Sadly, it may be the reason why we may decide to move again.