PETERSBURG AND THE ATLANTIC WORLD
LOCAL HISTORY IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT
PETERSBURG AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

Talk Presented at a Petersburg and Atlantic World Workshop "Education and Economics, 1950s to Present" March 2008.

Dr. Wesley Hogan
Department of History
Virginia State University

History is often too far removed in time and place to be meaningful for most people. One way to bring history alive is to provide ways for everyday people to tell precisely and concretely what has happened, and what has changed, in their local area. In Petersburg, the need to tell the stories of the recent past, and the civil rights movement specifically, is particularly acute. Here, we have been interested in the dreams of ordinary Petersburg citizens, and how their aspirations and experiences interacted with those of Dr. King and other leaders of the national civil rights movement. We need to enrich the national narrative of the civil rights movement by identifying and explaining how and where Petersburg's story-lines intersected with these national trends. We want to find ways to present the Petersburg story through the voices of ordinary citizens and leaders, as well as through important buildings and landmarks in the Petersburg movement. Indeed, we want to give today's Petersburg High students the pictures of Dr. King greeting Petersburg's black congregations, we want Peabody Middle School students to read the notable speech he gave at Virginia State, we want Blandford Elementary students to visit the houses where Dr. King went door to door in 1965 registering African-Americans to vote. It is only then that these young citizens are likely to grab onto the larger themes of Dr. King's career and the careers ordinary people played in the civil rights struggle with any kind of passion, insight, or identification.

Most of today is going to be narrative history, because we are just beginning to find out what happened. what we know about Petersburg: There were sporadic challenges to Jim Crow in the period between the intensification of segregation in the first decade of the 20th century and the 1960s. Most visible among them were those initiated by the Reverend Vernon Johns, the legendary predecessor to Dr. King at Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist church. Rev. Johns lived in Petersburg after being forced to leave Alabama. Once here, Johns continued to insist on equal rights for all. He mentored a generation of young pastors on spiritual equality and economic self-sufficiency. Petersburg youth Charles Sherrod and Dion Diamond shook the very foundations of Jim Crow as pioneering members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Gillfield Baptist Church's minister, Wyatt Tee Walker, took over as the Executive Secretary of Dr. King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, between 1960 and 1964. And Petersburg also served as the gathering point for the leadership of the white "massive resistance" movement in Southside Virginia.

Lee Park situation: 1952-54

Library sit-in, followed by negotiation/picket/sit-in at lunch counters, theaters, stores. By Nov. 1960, library was integrated: 1960 was a tumultuous, exciting, precedent-shattering year. But despite all the achievements in integrating public space, full integration was far away.

How did it feel to be in the center of this social movement?

Feb. 27 1960: Saturday. Student leave Gillfield in small groups at 4 min. intervals and took three diff. routes to Public Library. Entered through main entrance, stationed themselves at bookshelves throughout the rooms, careful not to block exits. Two black ministers, Wyatt Tee Walker and R.B.Williams, (and Milton Richardson) arrested after attempting to enter the Petersburg Public Library through front door and use main library room. 30 other people, including beauticians, Peabody students and VSU students arrested as well. 140 people showed up to support. Rev. Walker stays in jail. Mass meeting at Zion, resulting in Petersburg Improvement Association. Library closed Sat.-Wed.

March 1 (Wed) Petersburg all-white City Council vote to open library on segregated basis (and City Council Votes in ordinance making trespassing on city-owned property a misdemeanor, fine of up to $1000, jail up to 12 mos., recommended by City Manager Roy F. Ash, adopted unanimously). This paralleled a state-wide response to the sit-ins, which made trespass on private property a misdemeanor. VSU student CJ Malloy petitions City Council in front of 70 other blacks who had jammed into the third floor council chambers: “We petition tonight on behalf of the general Negro citizenry for complete desegregation of the facilities of the Petersburg Public Library. It is our desire that unless the side entrance is of some convenient use (deliveries, etc.) entrance for all be the rule and practice. In several very definite areas, all of the sign posts indicate clearly that this desired condition is what ought to exist in Petersburg, or in any city, North or South. Segregation as a part of the American way of life is dead. We stand on the threshold of America becoming her ideal, this is for you as our governing body, for us as citizens to commit ourselves to the moving tide and with mutual understanding, let Petersburg become a part of the American ideal. Granting this petition tonight would be a great step toward Petersburg really becoming an all-American city.”

Mayor Edens, reading from a prepared statement (Rather than addressing peition of students), then read that “a deed conveying the property to the city maintains the the library must be operated on a segregated basis.”

March 6 (Mon). Rev. Walker, Rev. Robert Williams and 9 other demonstrators were then jailed under new anti-trespass law when they entered library and refused to leave when asked. Protest meeting at Gillfield Baptist Church as a result, they spent 40 hrs in Petersburg jail, released on $100 bond; VSU and Petersburg Peabody students engage in sit-ins in Petersburg, most of them on Sycamore Street Stores, some on Halifax (according to Herbert Coulton, at least 100 VSU students participated); $100 bond for each arrest; Mayor Eden points out that in 1923 library basement had been set aside for blacks, 2 upper rooms for whites

March 9 5 protesters freed on $100 bond, 6 remain jailed, led by Dr. Milton Reid with 200 attendees, a 40 min. Prayer of Pilgrims vigil held on Courthouse steps to protest the jailings. Courthouse personnel turned off the spotlights that usually lights the area, so they brought their own flashlights;

later that day on snow-covered ground and in 26-degree weather, over 1400 people participated in mass meeting at Zion Baptist Church. Virginius Thornton: “The City Council failed to listen to us. What we did was done without malice but with firmness. Our cause is just…we want liberty or they will have to put us all in jail.” While people jammed the church, 6 telephoned bomb threats came into Zion. Walker: “Nonviolence is the only way. If for no other reason than that the alternative is too costly and hatred is a self-destroying emotion. It is far too great a price to pay.” Each described their jail experience, then hymns, then attorneys described legal situation. Attorney Samuel Tucker of Emporia: “This is total war against segregation. This is our chance to accomplish a social revolution without a bloody war.”

MLK sent a telegram of congratulations and encouragement. The Rev. Frank Pinkston, who led the Virginia Union student sit-ins at Thalheimer’s Dept. store in Richmond spoke, and Mrs. Dorothy Cotton. $1115 collected for those in jail.

$1115. What did it mean to individuals? For some it meant Eggs, milk and bread or freedom. Gerry Fauntleroy looked at her husband over the heads of their three small girls sitting in the church pew at Zion Baptist Church on that snowy February night in 1960, disbelieving. He had just placed their last ten dollar bill into the collection plate. The money would support those in jail, as well as Dr. King's visit to Petersburg. "I had to do it," Hermanze told her later that night. "We would find a way to put the bread on that table. But we couldn't live without holding our heads high."

March 14 Trial held at Municipal Court at 9 am, Judge HB Gillam presiding. At 8:30 am, 55-60 entered the court and sang hymns. Wyatt Walker and Robert G. Williams were fined $100 and court costs and sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating new trespass law. Also sentenced was Robert W. Williams, from Front Royal, VA, a VSU student fined $50 and 10 days in jail; Others receiving same sentence: Leonard R. Walker, 18, Peabody high school; Sandra Walker (VSU), Lillian E. Pride (VSU), Edwin Jordan of Peabody, and Mrs. Cassie L. Walker, a beautician of the 800 block of St. Mark St; Virginius B. Thornton, Foster Miles, Jr. of VSU, and Horace Brooks Jr of Peabody

Wyatt Walker, Mar. 14, 1960: “This technique of social change is invaluable because it provides an opportunity for individual identity with the greatness of a cause. And the mass action cannot help but punctuate the gross inequalities that exist in this instance at the Petersburg library. I am sure that the adult citizens of Petersburg have been inspired by the courage of these youngsters across the South.”

However, there was a different response from power: Progress-Index editorial: “Negro demonstrators must be made to realize that they cannot bludgeon their way into acceptance by white persons. The colored person who forces his way into a social situation where he is not wanted displays a peculiar lack of understanding of the civility common to decent people. As virtually all employers in the southern states are white citizens, the Negro who wants to progress within the region cannot use force and also expect to be given new opportunities to earn a living.

In addition to economic retaliation, there were threats of physical violence, Peggy Lee recalled that even on a Sunday, early in the morning, “we got calls. 'Watch what you're doing, nigger.' They were unrelenting calls, harassing calls. But we stayed. Sometimes I would stay alone, a young woman. We had to work the mimeograph, it wasn't like a copier, it was a lot more work.. We had mass meetings where we needed 500 to 600 copies. I just hung up the phone and kept turning. But few churches would even announce the mass meetings. Just Guilfield, First Baptist, Zion.

Even after integration, the legacy of fear continued. One of the region’s most fearless voter registration organizers, Herbert Colton, and his wife integrated the Bluebird Theater, got seats right up front and were escorted in by the manager, Mr. Nordam, himself, in 1964. We didn't have to pay. But we said no, we don't want the front seats free. We want to be customers like everyone else . No free popcorn. Nothing happened. Just the fear that something might just happen.

By 1964, after five years of protest, arrests, and jailings, the 1964 Civil Rights Act forced white Petersburg merchants to integrate. Schools would not be fully integrated until 1970, and by 1980, 90% of Petersburg’s public school students would be white. Petersburg however presents an excellent case study for examining the unintended impacts – and less-than expected payoff – of integration.

Several important avenues to pursue:

  1. How does this tie into Petersburg’s long history, particularly the church network, the strong economic independence of Petersburg’s black middle class, and the powerful public school system in Petersburg?
  2. To what degree is integration a factor in white-flight? What is the mall’s role? What happens to the schools after integration?
  3. How does Petersburg’s movement fit into both regional civil rights struggles? Is it really leading the way for Richmond, Danville, and Hampton as Rev. Walker suggests? What about the national struggle – where does it parallel and where does it diverge from the national storyline?


Peabody High School Protesters (Source: Richmond Times Dispatch Archives)

| | | | | | PROJECTS MEMBERS |