THE JUBILATION OF your father, the son of a slave, when he first held the deed to his own 50 acres in Hanover County.
Trying to explain to your hungry young son why he can't eat at the five-and-dime's lunch counter.
Feeling the wind from the door blow on your legs the first time you sat in the front of the bus.
These moments now exist in the memory of few. But they will not be lost.
Professor Shawn O. Utsey, the chairman of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of African American Studies, has spent two years conducting video interviews with African Americans 90 and older, all born and raised in and around Richmond.
Thus far he has interviewed 19 people, including civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker, who was Martin Luther King Jr.'s chief of staff, and educator Alice Calloway, who fought Massive Resistance in Richmond's public schools. The video interviews will be archived for perpetuity in VCU's electronic database.
Utsey, a New York native, found that the stories he heard challenged his perceptions of what life must have been like for blacks in the South in the early 20th century. Many of the people he interviewed chose to remember the good times, he says. Instead of fury over the ordeals of segregation, he heard stories of patient endurance — and joy when the rules at last were shattered.
He heard stories of happy childhoods, insulated from the malice of a segregated world by protective parents, by large country families and by the prominent black community in Richmond. He heard stories of young people so motivated to get an education that they would travel for hours, by foot, streetcar and bus, to reach Virginia Randolph School in Glen Allen.
Style caught up with four of those people. Here are their stories, in their own words.
Born in Richmond, Aug. 22, 1907
Wesley Theodore Carter grew up in Carver, the fifth of seven rowdy sons. “We were good boys,” he says. “We didn't fight. We would just rock battle.” He remembers hiding from his mother after hitting one brother in the eye.
He graduated from Armstrong High School in 1925 and earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Virginia Union University in 1929. That's where Carter, a dapper young man, met his wife-to-be, Louise Byrd.
Carter received his master's degree in school administration from Columbia University in 1947, then taught math and science at Armstrong. In addition to his 42 years as an educator, Carter founded the Friendly Food Store in Jackson Ward, managed a travel agency, coached basketball, served as a charter member of the Black History Museum and delivered the statue of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Richmond in 1973. Carter has been a member of Moore Street Baptist Church for 90 years.
“I GUESS THE best day of my life was when I met my wife. I went down to her home, it was Christmas … and she cooked dinner. And that was the best day of my life: I found out she could cook. … So she got me with her good cooking. I'll never forget that little hot pink dress she had on.
I was in a fraternity, and my fraternity brother said he had a young lady he wanted to meet. So he carried me down there, to see her. I'm with the Phi Beta Sigmas. My wife … she said, ‘I don't want to see no Sigma man.' She didn't want to see me. She saw me for 71 years. We were married for 71 years.
I went to Columbia University, where I got my master's degree. That's when I left Richmond. In those days, you know, because of segregation — you know something about that? — Virginia wouldn't allow us to go to school in Virginia. So they gave us tuition and two round-trip tickets.
I'll tell you some incidents in my life with segregation. When our son was first born, and he was a kid, we used to ride the streetcar down to the five and 10 cent store, you know. We went in the store, my little son. He said, ‘I'm hungry in my mouth! I'm hungry in my mouth!'
And we couldn't eat at the counter. We couldn't sit at the counter and eat … so we had to take our food off on the side. But he couldn't understand that. … He couldn't understand why he couldn't sit up with other people.
You heard about the four sit-ins? I was part of that sit-in too. My son and I, we went up to Broad Street and sat in up there.
Since I'm the oldest alumnus [at Virginia Union], I get free meals, 24/7. … They're very nice to me. I have a special parking place, special seats at the basketball game, special place at the football game. All special. Somebody was in my parking place today, so I called the chief of police. And you know in about 10 minutes, the police are there moving the guy out that got my parking place. In about 10 minutes. I said, ‘That's really good service.'
[Young people] ought to appreciate the dollar. Yeah. And be conservative, and don't waste it. … Doing drugs and things like that — stay away from drugs. Pick your good company. And your associates. And be a good model for other people. And you ought to think, ‘Why am I here?' The good Lord keep me here for some reason. I think so. To be a model. Show what you can do, to have a good life. I got a saying: I'm an amazing creature.”
Born in Henrico County, May 24, 1912
Helena Fountain lives in a brick house on the same small hill off Ridge Road where she was born 98 years ago. She attended Virginia Randolph School, a vocational high school that was one of the few options for black students at the time. To get there each day, Fountain had to take a streetcar into Richmond, then a bus out to Glen Allen. In ninth grade, she left school to become a housekeeper. She never married. She has been a member of Quioccasin Baptist Church for 88 years.
She rises at dawn each day to watch the sun rise. She helps her nephew, Aubrey W. Fountain Jr., care for his 92-year-old mother, Addie Fountain. And she's planning on making five from-scratch fruitcakes for Christmas this year, just like always.
“I'VE BEEN IN this spot all my life. [We spent our childhood] just playing around with each other. Till you got grown up, and you'd get old enough to go to work or do some work. … I loved cooking, and gardening — I mean flowers, not vegetables — and I liked to sew, and play piano sometimes. It was just a nice childhood, you know? Just being with each other. Family.
I went to work, as a domestic. I cooked. I never did any babysitting, but I did cooking and cleaning. … I worked even after I retired. I worked till I fell. I worked until I couldn't work, couldn't stand too much.
I guess cooking was the main thing I liked to do. … I'd make sweet potato pies and apple, blackberry, cherry, any kind. … I like to make every summer at least one big thing of homemade Brunswick stew. You know, when all the vegetables are fresh. Nothing tastes like that kind of stew out of the garden. And my daddy raised chickens, so we'd have plenty of chicken to go in the soup. And we raised pigs, if you needed pork.
Cooking and raising flowers is really what I like to do most. All kinds. Potted flowers. I like to root them from pieces and watch them grow. My mother used to do that. She would to go to visit, and if she sees something she like she'd come back with little pieces about like that. And after a while it would be a big plant.
I always wanted to be baptized in the James River here, you know. … I was one of the last ones that were baptized in the pool they had in the yard of the church. Yes, I remember. I remember going down in the pool and being baptized. The preacher would dip you in the water and bring you up. … But anyway, [Quioccasin Baptist] is where I've been all the time. A lot of people, you know, change churches. But I've never been anywhere else. And I'm sure not going anywhere else to join a church now. No, when I leave next time I won't know I'm leaving.
Everything just, you know, went smooth with me. I never had any problem with segregation. … Before long, it, you know, started mixing. But that never, you know, really bothered me. I never had any problem, any trouble.
I always liked to be happy. And I always liked to do everything that I could, and still like to do everything to make others happy. That's one of my goals: being happy, and making others happy, I like to do things to make others happy. I think when you do that, that is about all you can do.
I don't have a secret. I just live, you know. I don't have no secret of what to do to tell nobody to live a long time. You have to live your own life, to make it good or make it bad or whatever. But I always say that I would like to live a life that somebody would want to live the life that I lived. That they could say: ‘I would like to live, you know, like she's lived her life.'”
Born in Hanover County, Sept. 16, 1909
The first thing Lettie Madison shows you is the mosaic of diplomas, commendations and awards that covers the walls of her apartment at Westminster Canterbury. Madison dedicated her life to furthering the field of social work. She authored a book in 1969 called “The Black Social Worker” — an account of the obstacles faced by African Americans in pursuing an education in that field.
Madison, the daughter of a sharecropper and granddaughter of freed slaves, labored tirelessly to put herself through school. She earned her bachelor's degree from Rutgers University in 1934, then received her master's degree from the Fordham University School of Social Work. In 1965 Madison joined the faculty of Virginia Union, where she founded the School of Social Work — her proudest achievement.
“I THINK YOU ought to know a little bit about my family. My father was the son of a slave. He went to West Virginia and worked in the mines. When he tired of working in the mines, which wasn't very rewarding, he returned to Montpelier, to Hanover, and became a sharecropper. [Soon after that] he purchased a 50-acre farm, which he adored. And he was delighted. And the whole family went to live on the farm, this farm.
In 1925, I went to Hampton [Institute, now University]. Our people were farmers, they didn't have any money. So I took a work-year course. The work-year course meant you worked every day… and then you went to school for two hours at night. And that was your first year. I did very well. … The only trouble I had was learning to listen to the telephone. Did I have a time with the telephone! Because I had not used the telephone in the country.
During the summer, they would give you a job in the North, because there was nobody in the South that would hire us. … And I wrote to the Urban League, and they secured a job for me. But I never shall forget it: I wrote to the director of the Urban League … and he wrote back and said, ‘In order to accomplish what you want to accomplish, it's going to take an awful lot of work.' And I wanted to write back years later and tell him, ‘You were so right.'
I experienced segregation from the time I was able to breathe. Well, I'm still experiencing it. So segregation is something that I lived with, and had to deal with, particularly with employment. First of all, they didn't educate. They didn't want us to be educated. … You couldn't get a job. The jobs wouldn't take you.
Rutgers thought they wanted to hire me. So Rutgers got my credentials, and wrote to me, and oh, they said they'd love to have me, please come. … The woman who was going to interview me came to where I was working. … When she looked and saw me, that I was a black person, she practically fell down the stairs. And do you know what they did? Abolished the job.
I had to pass the Civil Service Examination five times before [an employer] would hire me. And I was No. 1 on the list each time. And that was true with everybody, that wasn't only with me. All black people had the same experience.
The best day of my life, I think, was when I married. I believe that was the best day of my life. … His name was Thomas Madison, and he was terrific. I could tell you a thousand tales. He was about 10 years older than I was, and my parents, they didn't like me marrying anyway. He was lovely. Because he helped me to get to where I wanted to go. He was very supportive. I would need to write something in the middle of the night, and he'd get up and make fire, stoke the furnace, so I would be warm in there. He was terrific. He was wonderful.
I've had many good days. One was when I came to Westminster Canterbury. Well, I wouldn't have gotten here if it hadn't been for anti-segregation. You see, the law changed. The law changed, and people had to abide by the law. And that's how we got where we did.
Now the young people don't know anything about the fact that they are where they are because of the fact that somebody worked hard to change the law, and the law changed. Now some people believe that the people have changed. I don't know. Do you think they've changed? I don't know that they've changed.
My advice for young people: Work hard, have something that they ought to do, and do it. And they can do it. Our generation laid the way for them.
Born in Hanover County on Sept. 8, 1905
Virginia Shelton grew up one of five children on the Wickham family plantation near Ashland, the same farm where her paternal grandparents had once worked. Her father, a preacher and a farmer, worked for the Wickham family. When her mother died in 1917, at the age of 32, Shelton had to help keep house and care for her siblings. She hates cooking to this day.
Hanover County had no high school for African Americans, so Shelton attended Virginia Randolph School. She married Charles Pillsbury Shelton in 1926. “I thought he was cute,” she says. She had three sons and two daughters, all at home, and later worked as a nurse for newborns.
Fame found Shelton on Sept. 29, 2010, when she got the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama, who spoke in Richmond. She gave him a hug, and the moment was immortalized in newspapers nationwide.
“THEY CAME AND then they told me I was going to see the President. And I said, ‘The President? When?'
They said now. I said ‘Now?'
They said today. I said ‘Today?'
And we went to see the president of the United States of America. It was a lot of people there and a lot of cameras. … And finally the president came. Obama came. And he talked. And they said they could see me sitting opposite from where he was standing, talking. And after he talked to the congregation and everything we went down in a little room … and that's where I was when I hugged Obama.
It was nice meeting Obama. I admit it. I hugged him. … I voted for him, of course. I feel great. I felt great when I heard he was going to be the president … a black president. And it happened. My vote was in there. I really voted for him. But I didn't know I was going to see him and hug him. I had no dream of that. But it happened. I hugged the president of the United States of America. A little black girl, hugging the president. And the black president.
[During segregation] we had to go to the back of the white folks' homes, and couldn't use the phones. We'd ride on the bus, ride in the back of the buses. And when desegregation came we could ride in the front of the buses. That was my joy. And I rode that bus, in the front of that bus, from the day they say you could ride.
The first time … I sat on that front seat and I didn't go to that back no more. They called me Sis. And my husband said, ‘Sis, I'm going to the back, where I always have been.' He wasn't going to ride on the front.
I said, ‘Pillsbury, my husband, you can go to the back if you want to. But being that I can ride on the front, there's no more going to the back.' … And every time I got on that bus I got on that front. And every time that door opened, my legs got so cold.
And one day … I got on the Greyhound. And two white ladies were sitting there … and the other one had put a pocketbook there [in the vacant seat]. I got on the bus, and I looked kind of shy at her, you know. And I said, ‘Will you move your pocketbook please?' She's sitting up there, didn't say anything. And I said, ‘Will you move your pocketbook please? That pocketbook hasn't paid a penny.' … She moved it, but she slowly moved it.
The hardest thing in my life, I lost my three children [in their 70s]. But God knew best. They were diabetics, so they had to go. I guess that was my worst time in my life. … God took them, and they were suffering with diabetes. Left the world, into another world. So nothing I could do.
I joined the church at 11, and from then on I taught Sunday school, I was an usher, and I did everything. I still go to Providence [Baptist] Church. I joined there in 1917.
And didn't nobody pick me up one Sunday and I couldn't get to church, so I got to thinking. I said ‘Oh. I know.' I got on the phone and I dialed 911. I did. And they want to know what was wrong. And I told them I wanted to get to church, and I can't get to church, and here is where I need my policeman. And he was off duty. But they sent a policeman. And he came and took me to church.
[The secret to a long life is] take the pill! It's just that easy. Take the J.C. pill. Exercise and attitude. And love people. Jesus Christ. Every day. Every night. Every morning, I thank Him. He is the one. He is the one. I couldn't be 105 and doing as good as I'm doing without Him. So it had to be Him. Only Him.
Which was the best day? Maybe today. I guess today. I'm still alive. Seen so many days. I've done so many things.
So I guess today. Right now.
Professor Utsey is searching for more participants in the African American Oral History Project. For more information, contact Utsey at 828-4150 or firstname.lastname@example.org.