It Happened Here
by Larry S. Chowning
Virginia’s Jim Crow laws were approved by the State General Assembly in 1902. The laws created a poll tax and required a passing grade on a literacy test before one could vote. This form of discrimination impacted illiterate blacks and whites. Other Jim Crow laws passed were designed to segregate blacks and whites in school, employment and from being at the same accommodations.
Segregation of the races and a lack of understanding of other ethnic groups often created a fear that touched our lives in different ways—particularly those of children.
Over the years, I have interviewed older folks who have reflected on their experiences from those times. In 2008, the late Ruby Lee Norris, in her 90s, was asked to write down a timeline of how she traveled to school—before public school buses came along. She recalled that in 1923 she rode to Syringa School in Middlesex County in a horse and buggy with a senior who lived just down the road from their farm in Hartfield. A year later in 1924 she rode to school daily in a Model T Ford with the Lundin family of Stampers. In 1925, she was old enough to walk to school and detailed some of her fears that came from that. “I’d walk to school with the neighborhood [white] children in the Miles, Collier, and McNamara families. “We were cautioned by our parents to ‘mind our business’ when we passed the colored school at the top of the hill along the road from the Wake intersection and Syringa road. Nothing ever happened, but in the springtime gypsies would camp on an abandoned yard on the opposite rise of the road, not far from the colored school. They (gypsies) were of greater concern to us than our black neighbors,” she wrote. “We had heard that gypsies kidnapped white children and stained their skin brown with walnut juice and then no one could recognize them.”
In another interview, the late Sterling White, an African-American who grew up near Fishing Bay in Deltaville, recalled his experience in the 1930s at Dunbar Grade School. “I don’t remember having too many race relation problems,” he said. “Oh, we would fight—one on one—but there was no double teaming or ganging up. I do remember something. Jerry Harrow had a garage car dealership (Chevrolet) in Deltaville and he had something to do with the school board. He kept school supplies (at his office) and about once a month at the 12 o’clock recess two of us boys had to go there to get supplies for the teacher and we had to walk past the white school in Deltaville.
“Our teacher would send two guys who could run fast and who could fight, and I was one of them. Those white guys would be out at recess too and were waiting for us. Allen Burrell and I were usually the ones to get the supplies but we didn’t have to worry about them catching us… we could run like the wind. If they did catch us and Allen hit them, they would have thought a mule had kicked them.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 eliminated segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations throughout the United States and, also, some of those childhood fears brought on by the separation of races.
It happened right here in Rivah Country!