Mother stood at my bedroom doorway early morning, September, 1956. It was a time of matriculation to that solid liberal-arts institution, Hampden-Sydney College….the day I was leaving home.
She made a simple request: “when you go downstairs, and say good bye to your father, I want you to kiss him, letting him know how much you appreciate the life he is about to send you on.” It was more a plea than a command….and I did.
Intriguingly, the college was a place where new life was discovered, and formed – both in the classrooms – and outside. The liberal arts curriculum reeked of 19th century academia: rich with two required years of Bible, four years of Histories and Political Sciences, massive Literatures, two years of both Ancient and Modern Languages, Philosophy, and of course the dreaded Sciences.
Access to the nationally renowned Edwards Professor, Princeton University – historian Dr. Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, was a defining moment for this American History major. Add professors M. Boyd Coyner, and Willard F. Bliss insured a solid history preparation.
Being tapped into the national leadership fraternity, Omicron Delta Kappa, in my final senior months was an honor – especially since William Hoffman, professor of English, writer-in-residence, and highly successful novelist, was tapped in the shared ceremony.
Richmond lawyer Lewis F. Powell, Jr., who was then a decade away from appointment to the United States Supreme Court, was guest speaker and also an honoree at the ceremony. This was tall cotton for me – a heady experience.
Then there’s an advertisement in The Farmville Herald that read: “Foundation Schools to Open September 6, 1958”:
…. “The calendar for the next school year for schools operated by Prince Edward School Foundation was announced this week by Roy R. Pearson, school administrator. Opening day this fall will be September 6…
The new, limited private school system for Prince Edward County was clearly “progressing” with its total segregated racial intent. “Cooperation Needed” was the title of a Hampden-Sydney Tiger newspaper editorial, written by me. Alas, it was a total editorial dodge at best, or worse, a total dereliction of duty.
The sizeable press conference was held at the State Theater, downtown Farmville, VA. Hampden-Sydney student reporters joined the fray of professional journalists from Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke, Washington D.C. – even Philadelphia, and New York. It was a national story. Time Magazine delighted its readers by observing the current film playing in Farmville was “The Village of the Damned.”
Roy R. Pearson, newly appointed superintendent, was introduced to an almost packed theater. He was more impressive than one might have thought – confident, strong on his feet, seemingly an outsider with his lack of Southern twang.
Yes, the closing of public schools would take place….yes, it was sad…..yes, the community thought the “Central Government” had gone too far by recklessly endangering the social fabric of the county, constitutionally. The press corps began to seethe.
In the final part of the news conference, a WLVA – Channel 13, Lynchburg, VA cameraman, loudly dropped his heavy, antiquated equipment, bringing an abrupt interruption to the proceedings. Fellow reporters dashed to his aid, assisting the distressed television reporter. It interrupted the growing hostility between the press and Roy Pearson. J. Barrye Wall, publisher, owner of The Farmville Herald, sauntered to the stage microphone, and re-directed the press conference.
Wall simply stated that he knew how the “press boys” felt about the issue, about Prince Edward’s decision, and probably what they thought of him. “But that doesn’t bother me”, he droned. With Phi Beta Kappa Key swinging from his side pocket, Wall issued a surprising invitation to all reporters – no minorities present – to join him in a walk up High Street to Farmville’s premier hotel, The Weyanoke, and its dining room. With southern hospitality on display, a sumptuous buffet awaited his reportorial guests. The ice appeared broken.
Reporters from as far away as New York, and as nearby as Hampden-Sydney College strolled up the block-long hill preparing to enjoy a beautiful luncheon, alcohol – free. The buffet spread was impressive. As good reporters, holding highly critical views of this Prince Edward community’s action, they ate ravenously. I’d never witness anything close to it.
Rapidly, this unauthorized liberal-arts lesson took on a complex nature – a nature which required agonizing appraisal, and deliberate thought. While black citizens of Prince Edward languished at home uneducated, or required to move long distances to other public school locations, this white school experiment in private education was expected to hold on to its segregationist mantra.
It hit me like a bus: “Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood on the root”… it was a mournful 1939 Billie Holiday ballad, which woefully told of the treachery of human lynching – a grotesque kind of tree fruit. The community actions witnessed here appeared equally destructive: demolishing chances for life’s development, denying intellectual and social growth – another form of life destruction.
My Hampden-Sydney College, then almost 240 years old, is currently led by an African-American, Dr. Christopher B. Howard, its 24th President.
But those earlier lesson learned, and witnessed originated not from those challenging classrooms, it came from the hearts of gentle people who allowed themselves the loss of their humanity – another tragedy by any name.