SCOPE in Sussex County VA
Peggy Ryan Poole

[As told to and discussed by Freedom Movement veterans and family members at a story-telling session, U.C. Berkeley, September 30, 2018.]

Movement VeteransGuests
Marion KwanBill Hall
Peggy Ryan Poole   Char Potes
Robert Singleton 
Roy Torkington 
Bruce Hartford 

Peggy: I was involved in SCOPE [Summer Community Organization Political Education Project] during the summer of 1965. I had become interested in Civil Rights work after reading about Freedom Summer and in particular was interested in SNCC.

I graduated from high school in 1964, and I was 17 years old at that time. As a 13-year-old I worked hard canvassing and stuffing envelopes for Kennedy's [1960] campaign for President. That's what really got my attention as a 13-year-old and was very passionate about it, and that started my kind of political education.

During my freshman year of college, I was at Chico State which was, at that time, a very conservative college in Northern California. And I decided to volunteer to go down South and do Civil Rights work. There were no political organizations on campus at Chico State other than the Young Republicans and Young Democrats, neither of which was helpful. So I would need to go on my own and finance myself, and this was a very different time from today for girls, and I would need my parents' permission to do this. I mean, SNCC required it and so did SCLC, although at that time, they didn't have a program.

Anyway, I knew that [my parents] would refuse me permission, so I went to the mental health service on campus, in my naivete, and talked to a psychologist and said, 'OK, this is what I want to accomplish. How do I do it?' And he was very kind, and he said, 'Write them a letter, and then in that way, when they say, "No," they're not saying it to you. So then they can think about it and maybe reconsider.' And so I took his advice, and I did send them a letter.

And my father was so taken with the letter that he sent it to our assemblyman, Jerome Waldie, who was the assemblyman for our district in California, and he had the letter put into the Assembly daily journal. This was March 18, 1965. And he sent me a very nice letter, and they did give me permission of course. At that point, they had to.

Next, I wrote to SNCC. I wrote to several organizations saying I wanted to volunteer, offering my services. And this was in the early spring, maybe January or February of '65, and nobody was interested. They had no summer programs planned, and they weren't bringing volunteers in. But then Selma happened, and Martin Luther King launched SCOPE I applied and was accepted to that.

I took a train from Martinez, California to Atlanta, Georgia, and I arrived on June 14th to start the week of orientation. And you know, I was 18, raised in kind of a suburban setting. I started school in Berkeley, but then we moved to Pleasant Hill [a nearby suburb], so I graduated from high school in Pleasant Hill. And it was just electrifying for me to see and hear the giants of the Civil Rights Movement. So King obviously spoke there; [Bayard] Rustin and James Bevel spoke. Michael Harrington spoke, C.T. Vivian. You know, it was just electrifying and empowering.

And there were sessions on theory and practice of nonviolence, on community organization, on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, literacy training, Southern history, Southern history in relation to the Negro, the War on Poverty, and the Labor Movement in the South, which had a lot to answer for. And practical issues like what do you do when you're arrested? Since I was a single young woman, I was assigned by SCOPE to join the Santa Barbara SCOPE volunteers. At that time, there were three young men, Lanny Kaufer was one of them, Phil McKenna, and Gary [Emslen]. Within a couple of weeks, another woman joined us, [Elkie Whitenbruth] who was a German exchange student, that had spent a year studying at UC Santa Barbara.

Gary, Lanny, Phil and I arrived in Petersburg, Virginia which is where all the SCOPE volunteers for Virginia gathered. We drove up from Atlanta. It was a 14-hour trip, and we avoided gas stations with white men standing around. We only stopped to buy food, and we tried to be as discrete as possible, because we had California plates on our car too which was like a bullseye.

When we got to Petersburg, I was housed with Dorothy Williams. She was a single, working woman, mother of three. I didn't appreciate at the time her tremendous courage. I shared a bed with Evelyn, or "Baby Sister" as she was called. And I also didn't realize I was displacing Mrs. Williams from her bed at that time.

It was a whole culture shock, and I'm just going to tell one story that kind of epitomizes that for me. Elton was my age, and he and Evelyn and I went to church, and we'd go to mass meetings and stuff. I was only there three nights, I think, but one night when we came home, we were all hungry, and the house was dark. Lights were off. So we tiptoed into the kitchen for a slice of bread, and I could hear a scratching sound. I mean, I could hear it easily. It was quite loud. When they turned the light on, there were just hundreds of roaches that took off all over the place, off the bread. The bread was on the table. And disappeared very quickly actually. It was kind of impressive. And Elton picked up the loaf of bread and brushed it off, and then handed me a slice. And I thought, 'OK.' And I just ate it. And that kind of was the start of my learning process.

Mr. Herbert Coulton was the Field Secretary for SCLC in Virginia, and he arranged the assignments. Originally, the Santa Barbara SCOPE volunteers were going to go to Prince Edward County to help with literacy. As you probably remember, public schools were closed in Prince Edward County in 1959 to avoid integration, and they just reopened them in '64 but many children had had no schooling at all in those years. So there were a lot of people who went in to help with literacy.

But Prince Edward County was overrun with volunteers, so we were asked to go to Prince George County. But Mr. Coulton also told us about Sussex County. He described it as the worst county for the Negro in Virginia. SCOPE had sent letters to Negro leaders in Sussex, offering volunteers to help with voter registration, etc, and received no replies. We went to Prince George and found it very well organized, so then we went into Sussex, and Mr. Coulton helped us.

We had that first day almost a spontaneous mass meeting held, and we were able to obtain some temporary housing with some independent local families. I'll talk a little bit more about the economic slavery really that existed in Sussex. Let me just show you a picture, because I think it's helpful. It helped me anyway to see where Sussex County is. It's in the southern part of Virginia and the main city is Waverly; that was the county seat. But anyway, it's a long county, mostly rural.

The county was controlled by one man. His name was Garland Gray. He was a state senator and very powerful in the Harry Byrd machine which controlled Virginia politics totally. The voting age population in Sussex was 6,428 people; 58% were Negro, but the whites had a 2:1 advantage at the polls [because] 92.4% of the whites were registered to vote as opposed to 34.6% of Negroes. Another way that voting was controlled was that Virginia had a poll tax, and there were complicated rules about if you hadn't voted for three years, you had to pay so much; it was $1.25 per year, and you couldn't register till you paid, and you couldn't vote till you paid, so on.

The other way that they really controlled registration was that the registrar's office, which is where voter registration happened, and that was the only place in the county that you could register to vote, was open the first Monday of each month between 9 AM and 3 PM with an hour off for lunch. His office was in the middle of the county where the courthouse was, but there was no public transportation. So for anyone working, it was really — you had to take a day off work, and that was something not easily done. And he could and did — the registrar would cancel office hours at will. I mean, he would put a sign out saying, 'Gone fishing,' and that was it, and so you missed that month.

And in July of '65, the office hours were canceled because of the primary election which wasn't the same day, but he canceled it anyway. Garland Gray was the only employer in the county. He owned the lumbar mill and factory. He owned many of the houses in Waverly and in the county. He also owned the only bank which was in Waverly, and he was a close friend of the only local newspaper. Ten years prior, the men at his mill had voted to unionize, this is whites also, but he closed the mill for six months and that took care of that. There was no union and no more resistance to him.

So the Negroes in Sussex County were controlled economically, politically and educationally. So the Black high school — well, let me give you just a few more —  Sussex was eligible for War on Poverty funds, but none had been applied for by the white community, as federal money meant some federal oversight, and they didn't want that. Thirty-three percent of the Negro families earned less than $1000 per year, and greater than 80% earned less than $4000 per year; 40% of the Negroes had less than five years of education; and only 17% had finished high school. And of course, once people got education, they moved away, so it was just a vicious cycle.

And the Black high school was in the middle of the county. There was a bus to take kids to school and bring them back, but it only went to school at one time and came back at another. If you wanted to do anything after school, whether it's sports or any kind of clubs or further education, you missed the bus. And then you had to get home, and it was miles. So it discouraged kids from participating really, and of course that wasn't the case with the white high schools in the county.

So many people lived in dire circumstances. No running water, no electricity, obviously no indoor plumbing. Many streets were not paved. Garbage wasn't picked up in the Black community either. So we had our first mass meeting, and we were able to rent a hall. There was a Black storekeeper that had a small hall, and he rented it to us. And the students, the teenagers, were really eager and immediately formed a group and so forth. We got started talking about canvassing and going out, but the Negro storekeeper was really upset and scared, I think, because of that, so he refused to rent us the hall again.

The students were outraged, and they organized a boycott of his store which of course only Blacks used because it was in the Negro area in town. And the boycott, they organized that within a couple of hours, and it was almost 100% effective, and by that evening, he agreed to rent to us again. And that was very empowering, and that also allowed the adults to see the power of a group effort. So that was very helpful.

And we did obtain housing at the first meeting, and we rotated where we stayed, because it was a burden on people to have us staying there with them. But people were incredibly generous. The next mass meeting we had was on June 28th, and the adults were also becoming empowered, as I said, and a petition was written at that meeting and signed by the adults at the meeting for improvements in the Negro areas of Waverly.

on July 13th, approximately 50 Negroes from Waverly presented the petition at the Waverly City Council meeting, and they did win some concessions. That also was just so empowering, and it totally surprised the white community. They were really unprepared for this. Our efforts at community organization, literacy and integration had been focused in Waverly initially, but local Negro leaders in Waverly reached out to other Negro leaders, and these were primarily ministers in other parts of Sussex County. We got them on board, and on July 5th, the countywide mass meeting was held, and a Sussex County Improvement Association was formed and officers were elected.

This was important for several reasons, the most immediate was to help with voter registration and organization for that but also to hopefully bring federal War on Poverty money and programs into Sussex County. We weren't able to set up political education classes initially, but we were doing individual tutoring to help illiterate adults learn to write their names and helped some with some literacy to be able to register to vote.

I still remember how powerful it was for me when I was working with this man, and the first time he was able to write his name, and just the power that it gave him not to have to do the "X," you know? It was something I will never forget.

We had a few incidents here and there. We went to wash our clothes in a laundromat in Waverly, and the laundromat was used by both white and Black residents, so we weren't expecting trouble, but some of the young kids came with us, the way they do and hang around, you know? And we put laundry in the machines, and the owner showed up, and he went absolutely crazy, screaming and yelling and threatening us and throwing the clothes on the floor. We sent the kids home to get them out of there and tried to retrieve the clothes, and at one point, he locked the door and said he wasn't going to let us out. We stayed very calm, the way we had been trained, and said, 'You know what? You might want to rethink that, because that was kidnapping,' and so then he threw the door open, and he was just hysterical. He became more enraged, and he just kept escalating. Finally, he slapped Elkie in the face, and at that point, we said, 'OK, we're leaving.' We got the clothes that we could get, and we walked out.

Afterwards, we went to the local police who were nearby to kind of report what had happened, because in Atlanta they had said, 'Tell the local police where you are, what homes,' because otherwise they use the excuse, 'Well, we didn't know where they were. We couldn't have done anything.' So anyway, we had just moved, so we went over there to tell them what our new addresses were, and the sergeant, the Virginia state trooper said that the owner had actually come to them, because he wanted them to arrest us, but they didn't. And we didn't go back to that laundromat, and the reason we didn't go back was because he allowed Blacks to use it, and there was no point in just inciting him further.

So we did integrate in other places, restaurants and schools, we would take the kids to the white high school, to the playgrounds, because they didn't have any playgrounds and, you know, just played ball and stuff there. July 13th was the Democratic primary in Virginia, and a very brave, young white man named Carey Stronach ran against Gray. That was the first time Gray was opposed in 22 years. Carey's parents basically disowned him for that, because he was from Virginia.

So we were poll watchers. I was a poll watcher for Carey, and of course Gray had his own poll watchers. And I was in Waverly, and at the building where the polling was taking place, there was a semicircular driveway around. We were at one end, and Gray's people were at the other end. And they were just like on walkie-talkies, and at one point, this one guy was up in the tree with binoculars watching us, and it was just kind of absurd, because we were just standing there waiting if anybody had any trouble. So we decided to walk over again to the sheriff's office which was nearby, and when we went in the door, on the radio we could hear them saying, 'Oh, they're heading towards the sheriff's office.' And the deputies were clearly embarrassed, and they turned the radio down.

We left, and at one point, you know, you get kind of punchy with all this stuff, and at one point, we took empty soda bottles and put them up to our eyes, looking like we had binoculars at them. But that was a momentary lapse; we didn't want to incite anything. In mid-July, Gary, Elkie and I and a new arrival from Santa Barbara, Mickey Bennett, moved to Stony Creek and Jarratt, which is the other side of the county.

With five Negro youngsters, we went to a local restaurant, the Blue Tavern, which only served Negroes through the back door. They could only come up to the back door. The owner refused us and immediately closed, stating that she would go out of business before she would allow Blacks in. And then she put a sign in front of her restaurant that night saying, 'Closed on account of Niggers.' And the restaurant was on a major highway, US 301 which ran north to south, and this kind of stuff embarrassed people in Washington and other parts of Virginia. The sign came down the next day, but there's an article from the Richmond Times Dispatch. And here's a picture of myself, Elkie and Gary kind of gloating over the fact that we closed the restaurant down. I'm in the middle. Yeah, we just went up and had our picture taken by the closed door, and she never reopened.

On July 23rd, the call came from Atlanta to start demonstrating for voting rights and in support of the Voting Rights Bill. The registrar's office was at the courthouse in the middle of Sussex County, as I said, and he wouldn't speak with us. He kept referring us to the electoral board, and they wouldn't talk to us. And it was back and forth, and we weren't getting anywhere. But we focused on — August 2nd was the first time that he would be open since we'd been there that summer. We had demonstrations at the courthouse on the 26th and on the 31st again to raise awareness and interest in registering to vote but also to get people used to visiting the building that was normally kind of a frightening, threatening place, because it was.

At the July 31st demonstration, it was announced by Mr. Coulton that Martin Luther King had asked President Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Bill in Sussex County. No one expected him to do this, of course, but it was a great boost to all of our spirits. It really empowered people to know that Martin Luther King was interested in Sussex County.

On August 2nd, the registrar's office had a line of people waiting to register, and there was a line throughout the day. A total of 183 Negroes registered to vote that day, and over 125 of them also paid poll tax for the first time. We still had to deal with that for a little while longer. We met with the registrar after the office closed and presented petitions to him and the electoral board for the office to be open at least two Saturdays per month so that working people could register.

We told them that if the request wasn't approved within two weeks, we'd go to the Justice Department because of the provisions of the just passed Voting Rights Act, and that's in fact what we did. People from the Justice Department came down into the county, and things did change then.

Curtis W. Harris was an SCLC officer in Virginia, and he ran against Garland Gray in the fall, and we had a barbecue for him in Waverly, which was Garland Gray's home town. Garland Gray had had a barbecue in Harris' home town, so we returned the favor. In any case, it was almost 400 Negroes were registered to vote.

[Today] the Sussex County Improvement Association has an office on Main Street, and there's been a Black mayor, Black Chief of Police. The streets are paved in the Black area of town. So some things really have changed. And so then I came home and went into anti-Vietnam stuff. [General laughter]

Marion: It's interesting. We all did, many of us.

Peggy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all did.

Roy: It was interesting to hear you talk about the poll tax, because I haven't thought about the poll tax for years. I mean, I remember hearing about it very well, but this is really the first time I've heard anyone talking about the poll tax and what it meant and what worked differently in different places.

Peggy: It was just another barrier for people so they couldn't vote, you know? And like Bruce said, you know, they've been trying to raise barriers again in various places for voter registration.

Marion: When you say "we," who was with you?

Peggy: It was Phil and Lanny and Gary and then later Elkie from UC Santa Barbara. And when I came back, I came back to Chico State which had no — there were no organizations. There was no Civil Rights stuff. There was nobody to talk to. And I didn't talk about this until the 2014 reunion in Oakland.

A friend of mine who had been in the South called me and said, 'Oh, do you want to go to this?' I'm like, 'Well, OK.' And I went in, and I sat down next to this guy — young, well, he wasn't a young man then, but he'd been a young man when he was in the South, and while we were waiting after registering, and I said to him, you know, 'Where were you?' He was in SNCC and duh-duh-duh-duh. And I said, 'So did you go back to college when the summer ended, when you got done?' And he said, 'Yeah, for about two weeks.' And I was like, 'These are my people.' [General laughter]

"These are my people." So thank you.

Bob: I think that is a historical document which everybody ought to — before, I don't know — some of these things, I think, are just going to all show up at the same time. And I think it's going to have less impact, but we're getting a foothold on some of these things, and {UNCLEAR} we're disparate in our efforts, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has me on their mailing list now, and they really have done a lot to make changes. I mean, they just about killed the Klan. But stories like this help a great deal.

Marion: Yes.

Bruce: So you said you came back to California and got involved in the anti-Vietnam War stuff, and everybody here laughed and said, 'Yeah, us too.' But what was the longer-term effect of that SCOPE summer on you?

Peggy: I don't know. It's something that I've — I mean, I almost started crying just when you say that, so it's clearly had a profound effect on me. But it's something that I haven't been willing or able perhaps to delve into. Maybe like you, Roy, I don't know. But yeah, it's definitely had a profound effect.

Roy: I want to just say one thing about things happening. You know, what is it? The Doug McAdam's book on the Mississippi Summer Project. He has a picture on the cover. Anyhow, my daughter was saying one day, and this was a few years ago, but she was saying, 'Yeah, well that book that has a picture of you on the cover.' And I said, 'What book?' She said, 'Well, it's on your book shelf, one of your book shelves.' I said, 'Liz, you're crazy. There's no book with a picture of me on the cover.' She said, 'Oh yes, there was.' And she went, and she got the picture of Doug McAdam's book, and it's a picture of the buses taking us from Oxford, Ohio down to Mississippi, where we had the orientation. And there are people standing outside the bus holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome." And I was inside the bus, looking out the window. I mean, the window wasn't open; it was closed, and it was sort of a tinted window. And you could barely see me, and this was years after this happened. And she had looked at that cover and looked at it and recognized a 24-year-old me. She was born when I was 38, so you know, I was already 14 years older. And she recognized me. She said that, and I had never noticed that.

I remember the incident too. I mean, I remember I was inside the bus. That's right. But so things happen. What I'm getting at with this is that things happen that suddenly zap! There you are. And so it did have an effect. And that was a very good letter that you wrote to your parents by the way, and this stuff has got to be preserved, because it will disappear into the void some time if we're not careful. And so I left a bunch of photocopies of a bunch of my papers with the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg when I went down there for a book talk. I left them there; they were happy to get them. But they cannot stay in our attics, because they will disappear. They've got to go into some archive someplace or other.

Bruce: Obviously I agree with that. But what strikes me is that our movement, the Freedom Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Women's Movements of that era, are probably the last movements that you will be able to have historic documents preserved, because the movements of today, there's nothing to archive. There's no paper. It's all done on Facebook and Twitter and Instragram and stuff like that, and the people who own the digital files are the platform companies not the creators. And you know, you can't even use a computer disc from 10 years ago. Fifty years from now, Black Lives Matter people — I work with the group Indivisible, and there will be no record of the kind of record of social struggle of mass movement, popular social struggle, that we experienced and that we are preserving won't be possible for the modern movements. So in terms of preserving a record of what it looks like at the ground level, not the Martin Luther King level, but the ground level — we're it.

Roy: This Sussex County. I never heard of Sussex County, Virginia. I mean, I never knew about this place at all, and I was a compulsive news reader. But I don't think it ever penetrated beyond Virginia. I mean, it's a great story. It's a very, very great story. I mean, the county controlled by a guy that owns everything. And it's not the only place where that happens, but these things are really so local that you just never hear about them. And it's just an amazing story.

Marion: I think it seems like it's unanimous in this group, Peggy, that it sounds like — that it sounds like when any of us were in our movements, our so-called activism in those days, we didn't think that it was important. And now, it took the 50th anniversary for me to just wake up. I can feel that in your [story] also. And to remind ourselves that what we did was so monumental that it needs to be recorded. It might sound like, 'Oh, it was just a little place in Virginia. Who cares?' But you just put it on the map for us, and I think just by the virtue of the fact that you wrote it down, and you wrote your whole thing down. You can even give us that, a copy of that.

Peggy: I will give that to you.

Marion: Bruce is spearheading what we have [here] in the Bay Area, to me, is very valuable or invaluable, because we're talking about archives. I mean, I think what we have with the Bay Area Civil Rights Movement is a fairly detailed archive that I don't think SNCC has or other groups have as extensive as what he has for us. And we have access to it. So I think it's important to put it in. Maybe that's just my —  Yeah, thank you for doing that. Yeah.


Copyright © 2019

Copyright ©
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the story and commentary above belongs to the speakers. Webspinner:
(Labor donated)