In June, 1964, Tim successfully completed his Ph.D. degree in Chemistry at the University of Oregon, and had a job lined up as a Postdoctoral Student at Brandeis University in Massachusetts which wouldn't begin until September. We had both been inspired by hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak during our college years, but our immersion in study and work had kept us on the sidelines of the civil rights movement in its early years. Now we had three months free before the academic grind would start up again. Could we get involved in the civil rights action now?
We learned about a project which the American Friends Service Committee was sponsoring in the South, and volunteered to go to Powhatan County, Virginia. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) wanted white teachers to come for six weeks to tutor black kids who would be attending formerly all-white schools in the fall. Those kids had lived in a totally black world, and it was felt they needed advance exposure to white adults to help them make the transition to a racially integrated setting. They also needed tutoring in basic language and mathematics skills.
As we drove from Oregon along the West coast to Los Angeles and then across the desert to the Grand Canyon and Albuquerque, we heard some news reports about voter registration activities in Mississippi. Our route took us from Texas, where we visited relatives in Austin, to New Orleans. From there we planned to drive across Mississippi.
Tim's middle name, Farragut, was given in honor of Admiral David Farragut, and we wanted to find his birthplace. At a little rural gas station we stopped for gas and were unnerved by what happened. There we were in a car with Oregon license plates, obviously strangers, when a TV at the station blared out news about three civil rights workers (race-mixers, as they were called by locals) who had disappeared and not yet been found. The white-haired station owner scowled at us and said, "Those people who go somewhere lookin fer trouble always find it, no matter what their color is..." Needless to say, we were glad to move quickly on up the road, hoping for a slightly less hostile Virginia.
Powhatan County, which was our destination, borders on Prince Edward County, which was notorious nationwide for having decided in 1958 to close its public schools rather than comply with the Supreme Court's 1954 desegregation order. The only schooling available in Prince Edward County was private, expensive education. The county commissioners gave tuition grants to white parents only; about 80 of the 1800 black students were sent by Quakers to Friends schools, and some people sent their children away to live with relatives so they could go to school. Most simply did not go to school for 4 years, until with federal help the Free School was set up for 1963-64.
Powhatan County (named after the Indian Chief who was Pocahantas father) reluctantly consented to admit blacks to their public schools, and it was the parents of some of these children who were anxious about what kind of experience their children would have in September, 1964. We reported to High Point, North Carolina, for a brief orientation run by the American Friends Service Committee. (It was there that we celebrated the first anniversary of our wedding. My mother mailed the top section of our wedding cake to us for the occasion.) Soon we headed to Virginia, and met the head of that state s NAACP, Rev.Griffin. He showed us the way to Powhatan, advising us to drive carefully, obeying all the signs No need to get arrested for a minor matter, he said. He mentioned weekly death threats because of his NAACP activities, but felt we would have no trouble.
The NAACP in Powhatan was led by Elizabeth and Everett Hobson, a black middle-aged couple. He was a land-owning farmer and she a community activist. Their home was a rambling farm house with a large open porch. Inside, they had pictures of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy on the wall, as did virtually every black home we entered that summer. The Hobsons had organized the project so that about 50 children from 15 families would come daily to the grounds of St. Emma's Military Academy, a vocational school for young black males run by a Catholic order. It was nearly deserted in the summer except for one or two priests and a few nuns.
Each family with children in the program paid one dollar for the six weeks, and also agreed to take turns feeding us dinner each day. Keeping our weight under control was a challenge, for each family put on a fabulous spread of fresh produce from their farms, a couple of kinds of meat, and several pies: sweet potato, pumpkin, apple. Our residence was a small cottage on the grounds of the academy. There was no air-conditioning, and there were many hot, humid days and nights. Even now, when I smell honeysuckle on a hot summer night, I am transported back to those days and nights in rural Virginia ...
Tim was to teach the junior and senior high students, of whom there were thirty-one enrolled, and I the eighteen elementary youngsters. We were totally unprepared and inexperienced in a classroom setting. I had been a summer camp counselor but had taught singing, games, and crafts, not reading and language skills. Tim taught math and science, for which he was well qualified. Although we received some teaching materials from a black librarian in Richmond who was sympathetic to our cause, I felt true panic after a few days, and asked the NAACP for help. It came in the form on an Ohio school teacher, Florence Wenger, who helped me learn how to organize and plan each day. She took over teaching the 3rd to 5th graders. Several nuns from St. Emma s also got involved in the teaching once they learned about our project.
One of the productive things we did was to help set up a community library in Powhatan, a town of barely over 300 people. We solicited materials from our own churches and from twenty-five publishing houses. None of the 15 homes we visited had any reading material other than the Bible. We observed, during our evening meals with the families, that the adults did not talk with their children at all. There was no conversation to help them build verbal skills. It became evident that one of our biggest contributions was to get the children to talk with us.
Each Sunday morning we attended local Southern Baptist churches, and were always introduced and welcomed, standing to be acknowledged. One reason we had no trouble with whites in Powhatan was that we lived and moved almost exclusively in the black world. We learned a great deal in those six short weeks about rural black culture and life-style. We did not realize at the time what an unusual privilege it was to be guests in so many different black homes.
It was only later, when we lived in Kansas City and belonged to a racially integrated church, that we learned how fortunate we had been to be welcomed into so many African American homes to share a meal. We saw our Kansas City African American friends at church, and worked with them on community projects, but we were not invited into their homes. There was a wall of separation when it came to socializing which had been breached in Powhatan, Virginia. To the credit of Kansas City's Linwood Presbyterian Church, a program called Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? was started. It brought African American and white families together for dinner, and the host did not know exactly who would be coming until they showed up at the door, as arranged by the church secretary. The program later came to be called Salt and Pepper dinners.
After we left Powhatan, we heard from the Hobsons each Christmas, and in 1977 enjoyed returning to Powhatan with our three children to see them. Thirteen years had passed, and we learned that whites had been returning to the public schools after their initial flight to private schools. The western suburbs of Richmond had begun to stretch out to Powhatan County. This helped change the percentage of blacks in the public schools from the 60% of the late 1960's to only 33% in 1977. We were thrilled during that visit to meet one of Tim's students from 1964 who now held a Masters Degree in Education. He had designed and was operating a mobile unit to teach high school equivalency subjects in three rural Virginia counties, including Powhatan. He remembered us, and graciously credited Tim with giving him the impetus to gain the education he did. What more could we hope of six weeks spent with children whose families wanted much more for them than they themselves had been allowed to experience?
As with many endeavors meant to help other people, we were the ones who benefitted the most from that summer of 1964. Our horizons were dramatically expanded, and we came to understand some of the barriers to achieving equality of educational opportunities for all Americans. After that summer, everywhere we went we tried to continue our efforts toward achieving a goal we knew was a distant one: equal educational opportunities for all America s children.
When we got to Boston, we volunteered to tutor children who lived in the African American community of Roxbury, and after we arrived in Kansas City, Missouri, in late summer of 1966, we found a Presbyterian church which was racially integrated and was located in the heart of an African American community. We got involved in its community services activities including tutoring black school children.
When it was time for our three children to go to school, it was a foregone conclusion that they would be part of our commitment to work for high quality integrated public school education, a goal we first began to work toward in that hot summer of 1964. Many of our white friends were fleeing to Kansas or the Missouri suburbs to avoid the integration of public schools following a desegregation court order in 1978. Very few blacks lived in those locations. How in the world, we thought, can integration succeed if there are no white children left in the public schools? Some of our friends told us, You re letting your children be guinea pigs. Our reply was, And you are letting yours be guinea pigs by keeping them in an all-white environment. How will they ever learn to get along with people who are different from them?
Both of us had been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and felt a responsibility to work for justice and equality of opportunity for every American. At Oberlin College Tim had heard Dr. King lecture about the striving of oppressed people for freedom from the ancient Greek philosophers through Gandhi and into the present time; I had listened to him address the topic of Racial Tensions at a 1959 conference attended by 3000 college students, half of them from outside the United States. Dr. King reminded us that as long as there are people who are not free anywhere in the world, none of us is truly free.
Copyright, Marian McCaa Thomas, 2010