Caught in a Rip Tide: Reflections on Childhood & Race in Emporia, VA

        Growing up in Emporia, a small town in southside Virginia which derives its significance from nearby Interstate 95, has been one of my greatest blessings.  Free of the crime and decay of a large urban area, Emporia offers a conducive environment in which to learn traditional values and common sense ethics; yet it is not so rural as to have isolated me from the rest of world and made me naive of its more sinister aspects.  Emporia embodies the best of the city and country: as a youngster there, I could visit the shopping center, see a movie, play baseball, go fishing, explore the woods, and tour a farm all within 15 minutes.  What I cherish most about southside Virginia is that extended family members live near each other.  My grandmother and two of her siblings still live on their father's farm.  Because they work hard, eat right, and live by strong moral convictions, people in southside live longer, too, a benefit which has enabled me to know five great-grandparents, three grandparents, and hundreds of uncles, aunts, and cousins.  Yet in the midst of my beloved community which still honors the wisdom of tradition, the holiness of God, and the love of family, an insidious force continues to permeate our way of life.
        My great-grandmother died last February after suffering through a series of strokes for two years.  Granny was the last of my great-grandparents, and I felt fortunate to have known her for nineteen years.  She was the matriarch of our family, having eight children, 20 grandchildren, and countless great-grandchildren whom she loved dearly.  We grieved at having to watch Granny deteriorate and suffer for so long.  Her children, adhering to their sense of family obligation, could not put her in a nursing home because they saw that as abandonment.  Instead, they hired a woman named Irene to live with Granny during the week while the children alternated taking care of her on the weekends.  But Granny was a long suffering victim of her own prejudice, and even on her death bed she found it difficult to live with Irene bcause she was black.  One day Granny even slapped her, but Irene rose above it.  I think she pittied Granny as much as we did.
        The racism of southside Virginia first disrupted my life during my early school years.  My best friend in first grade was Tony Walker; I am not even sure I realized he was black at the time-- probably because it did not matter.  No two boys have ever laughed together as much or played as many games of slap-jack and war.  My mother says that during first grade when I entered the hospital with chest pains, Tony came to see me every day to say that he missed me.  We remained close through second and third grade, but by the fourth grade we began to grow apart because different socioeconomic backgrounds segregated us into different classrooms.  The influence of my parent's educational and financial background was enough to make my placement test scores significantly different from Tony's.  This artificial separation ended what might have been a lifelong friendship.
        As I continued through school, I made more black friends, but my relationship with them was different: I was consciouly aware that they were black.  Awareness of the history of race relations in the United States and conscious efforts to teach me that blacks and whites have the same rights, corrupted my innocent acceptance of my black classmates as people.  Knowledge did not liberate me but made me captive to the unnatural mode of thinking in which I thought "black" before I thought "person".
        In the eighth grade I became unhappy with the public junior high school because the teachers could not teach while disciplining juvenile delinquents, both black and white, who were two to three years older than I.  My parents noticed the change in me immediately and suggested that I change schools.  In a county with one junior high school, the logical alternative was Brunswick Academy, a private school in nearby Brunswick county.  My parents did not wholly approve of the academy because its origins wre part of Virginia's "massive resistance" to desegreation in the 1960s. The school did have other minority students enrolled, but a black student had never walked its halls.  After considerable deliberations, however, my parents and I decided that after Thanksgiving I would enroll at Brunswick Academy because of the educational benefits it offered. 
        I did not tell any of my friends that I was about to leave them to go to another school, an all-white school; I knew if I did that I would be labeled a racist and a snob.  I could not face my black friends because they would not believe my reasons for going.  I thought I would just keep my secret for two weeks, leave school unannounced, and avoid confronting my friends with news that they would see as a betrayal.  I imagine that for a week after Thanksgiving they probably thought I was sick or that I had had an accident.  I am sure they were worried.  I am also sure they felt betrayed when they learned the truth, even more so than if I had told them the truth myself.
        I have continued to see the damage of racism at collge.  During my first few years at Brunswick Academy, and even when I came to JMU, I was embarrased to admit I went to school there.  When my college history professor explained to the class how Virginia developed a private school system to resist desegregatrion and that he actually had a student from one of those schools in his class a few years previous, I did not feel embarrassment, but shame.  I do not see myself as a racist, and I certainly do not want to become one.  I resisted the influence of racist attitudes the best way I could, but did I succeed?
        I recently saw Tony Walker for the first time in six years.  Seeing him reminded me that I do not have any close black friends now, only acquaintances.  As we talked, I realized that he had grown up to be a fine young man, just as I expected, with a wife and a baby girl whom he works hard to provide for.  He never asked me why I changed schools or why I left without saying goodbye.  I felt a great joy and comfort as we smiled and laughed with each other again, as though we were still in the first grade.
By Eric Fleshood
March 23, 1992