The western shores of the Chesapeake Bay have a deep history of slavery. One black community is memorializing its past and engaging its white community in moving forward.
It's been a ten year journey for former classmates of the Holley Graded School to convert the four-room schoolhouse in Lottsburg into a museum. Two abolitionists, Sally Holley and Caroline Putnam, built the school for former slaves soon after the Civil War ended. Their efforts are documented in letters to one of their biggest financial supporters, writer Louisa May Alcott.
“When they got here there was absolutely nothing here. People were already stinging from losing the war. They were saying to the Negros, “You may be free but you'll never be equal. Even in the steamships coming down from Washington, once you got below the Mason-Dixon Line you had to sit differently,” said Garfield Parker, who attended the school until desegregation in 1959.
“These ladies, their goal was not just to teach the skills that were needed. Their goal was also to teach folks how to think.”
Parker's great-grandfather was a slave. His grandfather, a tomato sharecropper, never went to school. His father, Garfield Senior, now 86, worked the fields with his father, which kept him from regularly attending Holley.
“At certain times of the year, I had to stay home and do the work. I wanted to come but I couldn't come. There wasn't school buses like there are now.”
Eventually, there were school buses and the senior Parker made sure his son was on it. Parker Junior became a teacher and his son, class valedictorian.
Out in the hall amid photographs and an exhibit that includes a bull whip, a group of black and white people are having a discussion. But it's not about the exhibits.
They're talking about Michael Ransome, the middle school principal who, two nights before, gave a lecture at the public library on White Privilege. The title raised eyebrows in this quiet, mostly white county. A few people complained to the school board, including Steve Berman who dismissed it as scholarly research paper data and a no win topic. But he didn't stop there.
“If you're going to stir the crap you should lick the spoon.”
Ransome was asked to remove his job affiliation. The board never asked him to define White Privilege. If they had they might have heard a story from his lecture about a party he attended at the governor's mansion in Richmond where he was one of a dozen African Americans among more than 100 guests. He describes being tormented with how he might be perceived if he ate a piece of watermelon from the buffet table.
“One thing was for sure, all the other white people in that room, I bet you not one had an item of food so negatively tied to their race that they would do anything in their power to avoid it. That's an example of white privilege.”
For Ransome it was the conversation later that mattered.
“I feel like people tonight got a pretty good understanding of things they might not have ever thought about. Sort of like something hidden in plain site. That's what really made me happy, is seeing black and white people just talk to each other about issues they would never discuss.”
Back at Holley Graded School Garfield Parker is making a final push for opening day. He has seen Ransome's White Privilege lecture and aware of the controversy it created.
“It's a discussion that needs to be had. It's about perspective really. I just believe that a community does not grow unless it is not afraid to talk about things.”
In April, Holley Graded School Museum will be open every Saturday and Sunday. And once a month, Northumberland County's Interracial Conversations group, which sparked Ransome's lecture, meets at St. Stephens Church in Heathsville.