In 1981, we moved from Alton, IL, to the Washington, DC area, so I could start what I then thought would be, at most, a two or three-year sabbatical to lean more about how our national government worked, so I could use that knowledge as a newspaperman.
We looked briefly at housing in the District of Columbia, but decided it was too expensive and crowded. Virginia was the best option because it was closer to the Capitol than anywhere else, and we found a condo for rent on the Orange subway line that would offer good public transportation not only to work but to visit other parts of the capital city.
I had reservations, however ,because of my personal experiences of Virginia’s racist history. As an elementary school student in Farmville, I had witnessed the closing of public schools and establishment of an all-white private school, with support by the racist county board of supervisors and school board. Black kids my age who were friends suddenly had no schools.
That bothered me, so my mother considered sending me back to my hometown in Florida to live with my grandparents, so I could go to integrated public schools there. Instead, she and my stepfather sold the family sawmill business and farm, so we could move to her home county and his family home in the county of Floyd, which had integrated rather than fight.
It took a few years to get the business sold to my stepfather’s brother, reach an agreement with him to buy the family farm, and find a buyer for the farm in Prince Edward County. In the meantime, my stepsisters, brother and I went to school in church basements, fraternal halls and other makeshift locations.
One fall night, I sneaked through the woods to lie quietly on my stomach and shoot photos of a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan in the county with my Yashica-Mat twin-lens camera on Tri-X black and white film. The camera was a Japanese copy that was called (a poor-man’s Rolleiflex) that my mother had bought used to boost my interest in photography.
That camera led me to take photos that a young editor, Ben Bowers, at the Farmville Herald thought were usable as features shots for the paper. The photographers there encouraged me and developed my film. When I brought in the photos of the Klan meeting, it caused a lot of buzz in the newsroom but also a decision by the paper’s owners that it would not be used.
So Bowers sent the photos to the Richmond News-Leaders, the then-afternoon paper published by the same company that owned the Times-Disptach. They used the photo and became my first published news photo in a daily newspaper.
It also brought a beating after school one day by some sons of the fathers who were members of the Klan and were at the meeting. From that point on, all I wanted to do in life was work as a newspaperman.
We moved to Floyd just as the new county-wide school was opening. Racism in this county was not as blatant as in Farmville but still present. Integration had come after much debate. When the new Floyd County High School started and began a football program, some parents publicly said their kids would not play football against teams with Black players.
I showed my folder of clippings and photos to Pete Hallman, owner of the weekly Floyd Press. He hired me as a reporter, photographer and gofer full time, so I spent every day after school, and many weekends, at the paper and in the community, covering news in words and photos.
In 1963, I drove my just-purchased 1957 Ford to Washington to photograph, on own, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech.” When I got back, some students called me a “n—er lover” and some parents forbid their daughters to go out with me.
As the school’s student photographer, I found that some photos that featured Black students were snickered at by some. I decided to get through school as fast as possible so I could leave. Taking classes for two years without study hall and a summer school one year allowed me to skip my junior year and get the hell out of town.
At my first daily newspaper job, The Roanoke Times, I covered several meetings of the Klan in Franklin and Patrick Counties and demonstrations in the streets after Martin Luther King was assassinated. I also remember a long debate by the paper on whether to start publishing photos of Black brides in wedding notices.
When the first ones appeared, the paper received subscription cancellations with copies of the photos along with obscene notes filled with racial epithets.
At my next newspaper gig, I moved to Alton, Illinois, birthplace of James Earl Ray, the convicted killer of Dr. King. It was also the home that honored Elijah Lovejoy, a newspaper editor killed by a segregationist mob. A piece of his press sat on a stand in the paper’s lobby.
Shortly before I arrived, a racist police officer in Alton shot a suspected shoplifter in the back in downtown Alton, which left him paralyzed. The officer was not punished but a civil suit against the city brought in a Metro-East attorney with a history of record-breaking damage lawsuit wins.
I covered the trial. After lawyer Rex Carr, in his cross-examination of the officer who shot and paralyzed Hilton Perry exposed the cop’s racism and finished his case with a short closing argument: “You know, it’s too bad for the city of Alton that Hilton Perry did not die in the street that day. He would have been just been one more dead n—er, and we wouldn’t be here today.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper reporter seated next to me, turned and asked: “How big of a damage reward do you think will come back from the jury?”
“More than the city can afford,” I said.
The award would have bankrupted the city. It took a taxpayer bond issue to pay it. The city lost and it deserved to. Even in the Land of Lincoln, racism remained.
That knowledge caused some concern for us when we moved into a rented condo in 1981 in Arlington, so I could work in Washington. On a drive through Northern Virginia, passing more than a few battlefield monuments, Land of Lincoln native Amy shook her head and wondered: “My God, how many monuments would you have if the South had actually won the Civil War?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Two years became more, we bought the condo, and lived in Arlington for 23 years. It was one of the more liberal areas of Virginia, and we welcomed that.
When we came down to Floyd in 2002 to shoot a documentary at the Friday Night Jamboree, we had dinner at Oddfellas, owned by a mixed-race couple and filmed Blacks dancing with whites at the Jamboree.
Perhaps, we felt, the county had changed and, hopefully, the Old Dominion with it.
But Virginia was the place where a white man who loved and married a Black woman (the Lovings) were arrested and told to leave the Commonwealth or face jail. Their treatment led to the Supreme Court overturning Virginia’s prohibition against mixed marriages.
When we moved to Floyd County in 2004, it was gratifying to see couples of the same sex loving together openly and more and more mixed-race couples in the grocery store and at sporting events.
But we still have pickup trucks flying large Confederate flags from their beds along with “Forget Hell!” bumper stickers along with others with racial epithets.
When I wrote about such things, some claimed I was calling the county racist. I wasn’t, but I was writing that racists still exist in this nation and some of them live here. When one I consider racist launched attacks on Facebook and in letters to the editor while screaming in all capital letters that he was not a racist, a psychiatrist I know said those who are most often racist are also those who proclaim the loudest that they are not.
At a peaceful demonstration on Black Lives Matter last year, a man paraded through the crowd with a Confederate flag and shouted threats, insults and epithets.
Floyd County deputies arrested Roger Andrew Altizer, a contractor worker form Hanover County working in the area, for disturbing the peace, and he went to jail. I wrote on that sentence for both The Floyd Press and The Roanoke Times.
In Franklin County, we had Virgil Goode in Congress who stormed out of one session of the House because a Muslim was elected to Congress. His antics finally cost him his seat as Franklin’s population became more diverse and progressive, but we had racist Republican U.S. Senator George Allen using racial slurs against a young man shooting video at a gathering. More stories showed his racist past in college.
Virginia Military Institute still had racist issues and its yearbook featured cadets in blackface in programs ridiculing Black cadets. Even Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam admitted appearing in blackface as a medical school student.
Now we have racist Virginia State Republican Sen. Amanda Chase, who called the mob that stormed the Capitol “patriots” after they ransacked the building, threatened elected representatives and killed a Capitol police officer.
The Virginia Senate censured Chase 24-9 for her comments.
“I’m going to continue to speak the truth,” she responded.
That’s a bald-faced lie. She continues to support the debunked claims that Donald Trump “actually” won the 2020 presidential election he lost by more than eight million votes. His loss, she says, was because of voter fraud that more than 90 state and federal judges have declared “without merit” and untrue.
Like Trump, Chase is also suspended from Facebook. She calls herself “Trump in heels.”
“There is an overt effort here to erase white history. That’s what they’re looking on doing,” Chase adds. So? What’s wrong with that. Whites are becoming a much-deserved minority in this nation. With their racism and white supremacy, they earned that future.”
Chase is also running for governor of Virginia, where state Republicans want to use a system of convention that could give her the nomination.
Normal for the Old Dominion, where the GOP has turned to racists like George Allen to be their loser choice for governor.
Change too often comes slowly in the Old Dominion. But statewide votes are now controlled by Northern Virginia and Tidewater, where minorities, newcomers and progressives live and work.
That’s a change many of us can live with.
There’s no “overt effort” to erase white history. No one has to. They are doing it to themselves and helping replace their lies with the truths of their racism and white supremacy.
By the way, I’m not white. I’m 25 percent Seminole, with a full-blooded great-grandmother, and am proud to be married to an Irish-Lebanese woman for more than 40 years. I’m proud to not be white. Considering their damage to America, who in the hell would want pride in that demented heritage?