When I was 12 years old, my Dad sent me to stay with my Grandmother in Sophia, West Virginia. He thought it would be good for me to help my Grandma pick, string and can green beans. My social calendar was blank so I agreed to go. It was a hot day for West Virginia and Grandma sent me packing after my first complaint. Grandma seemed content in the midday heat, her face covered by a big straw hat. I took my leave before she changed her mind and raced upstairs to my favorite room in the old house. I was halfway through Judy Blume’s “Are You There God It’s Me Margaret” and I hoped to find out if God had answered Margaret’s prayers.
Sophia, WV is a small town in southern West Virginia and the birthplace of the late senator, Robert C. Byrd. It’s a nice town with a population of 1,400, give or take a few. Ben Franklin certainly wasn’t the mall, but Grandma would most likely give me a few coins for penny candy ifm walk downtown would be a welcome change of pace. If I finished my book, Grandma would allow me to stop by the library.
After a few minutes of reading, I noticed a bunch of papers sticking out of an antique dresser in the corner. I was certain the papers were not there before, so I naturally thought it would be a good time to snoop. As much as I wanted to find out if Margaret’s prayers would be answered, I thought it best to check out the dresser when there were no sisters or cousins around.
The first drawer I opened was full of photographs and letters. I started to make little piles on top of the dresser with pictures, letters and random papers, realizing I was actually helping Grandma clean up a mess! There were many old letters from my uncles, most of them dated and postmarked in the 1940’s. I now know they were probably written during WWII, a treasure I pray did not get tossed away.
The piles were getting high when I found a letter not in its envelope. It was written on fine stationary to my grandfather in what I thought to be excellent penmanship. It was signed in blue ink by Robert C. Byrd. I knew who Senator Byrd was, and I was immediately impressed he wrote to my Grandpa. The letter started with a polite introduction inquiring about my Grandma, Bessie, and the children. It read like an invitation to a church meeting, even mentioning the refreshments to be served. But as I continued to read, I knew the letter was something my Father would not approve of kme reading.
I knew more about the Ku Klux Klan than many adults, and it wasn’t because white hooded robes were in the family laundry basket. Like I said, I wasn’t like most children. I was the kid who always had an ear infection or strep throat. I remember my Dad sitting up all night with me, spoon feeding me hot tea and honey on many occasions. I was the child with high fevers who worried her parents with every earache.
One way I learned to entertain myself when sick was reading. In fact, one of my favorite books was “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. I found it in my older sister’s bedroom and it did not disappoint. When the other children went to the playground, I curled up with a book. I read everything I could get my hands on, and I knew the meaning of “prejudice” and “racism”. I felt a kinship with Scout, who was a little girl without a Mother. My Momma had cancer, and she gave every drop of energy she could muster up to her children. I knew my two younger sister’s needed her more. Afterall, I was almost a teenager. Reading was my way of emotionally escaping.
Standing in the bedroom holding the letter, I suddenly felt a deep, sick feeling in my stomach, and I felt ashamed.
My Grandpa, Edward Hartsog, died before I reached my first birthday, but I loved him. I also admired him, because he wrote a book called, “Hooky Cop Saga,” and told stories about being the first truant officer in Southern West Virginia. Before I was born, he was called a “Hooky Cop,” because children not in school were considered delinquent and there were harsh punishments for both the parents and the child. Grandpa remains one of my biggest heroes. He walked up hollers and down dirt roads to inquire about why the children living there were not in school. My grandfather explains in “Hooky Cop Saga” children didn’t skip school because they weren’t interested in learning. Most of the time, children not in school were very poor, and without the proper clothes, shoes, eye glasses, and school supplies. Many teachers and principals had misconceptions about these children, especially if they were kids who worked on farms. Children got up before daybreak to milk cows and feed the pigs, so they probably came to school a little smelly. My grandfather got busy to obtain the things the children needed by going to various churches and civic organizations, such as the Lions Club and the Kiwanis Club. He became an advocate for these students and families, and even though the word social worker had not been invented in the 1940s, my grandfather was a social worker.
I stood in the bedroom considering my options. Looking back, I can’t help to compare my 12 year old self to “Scout” in Harper Lee’s novel. Grandpa Hartsog was my Atticus, and I decided it was up to me to protect both him and my Dad. I folded the letter and put it on a high shelf in the closet where I was certain it would not be found for a very long time.
I have no idea if the letter was ever found by another cousin, aunt or uncle before my Grandparent’s house was torn down. The funny thing is, even though the letter was gone, it wasn’t. Its existence remained within me.
I didn’t tell my Father about the letter until I was grown and finished with college. Dad did not know about the letter, but he wasn’t surprised. He agreed it was a “recruitment letter” and I was finally able to let go of a burden I carried for many years. Dad told me Senator Byrd tried hard to recruit my Grandpa because the Hartsog’s were well respected in the community. He said, “Your Grandpa worked with families from all over and helped children of every race. It didn’t matter their color or what church they went to. It didn’t matter how poor they were. Your Grandpa was a good man. He would have no interest in anything like that.”
Dad was quiet for a minute and then confessed to me his own personal feelings regarding Senator Byrd.
“I was walking to Beckley and Senator Byrd saw me and stopped to give me a ride. I was just a young fella, probably in high school. I never liked him after that.” Dad told this story several times over the years and being the inquisitive daughter, I always asked, “Why not?” Dad would take a moment, and with a curious look in his eye, he would always say, “He said something I just didn’t like.” Dad never revealed to me what was said on the ride to Beckley, but he did reassure me there was nothing for me to carry on my shoulders any longer.
Life is about lessons. We often think we have learned all we need to know, but if we haven’t fully embraced the lessons, they will come around again. This is what we call, “coming full circle” and I have been on the merry-go-round of lessons my entire life. I think we all found ourselves on the rollercoaster last year. The year 2020 put Americans to the test, and although I think we excelled in some areas, we completely failed in others.
My career as a psychotherapist has been helpful in understanding the seriousness of the trauma suffered by so many in 2020. Even with years of experience, I know it will be a long time before the healing can begin. The fact is, we are still on the battlefield and although the vaccine for Covid-19 is our best hope, more people will die. So far, The United States has lost over 500,000 people to Covid-19. Our neighbors have lost jobs and small businesses have shut down. Parent’s are suddenly teachers and trauma from the pandemic has caused suicides all over the country. Domestic violence has increased as well as drug abuse.
We were forced to change almost every aspect of our lives, and for the most part, we have. American’s fight. It’s what we do. We witnessed the courage and sacrifice of our people from September 11th, 2001. Men and women volunteered from all over the country after Hurricane Katrina. We now fight an invisible enemy, Covid-19. I have watched people from my own town come together to support local businesses, desperately trying to keep a virus from taking our livelihood from us. Some businesses have closed permanently, but most are still fighting. “American spirit” is also an invisible force. Make no mistake, the unrelenting determination of our scientists, first responders, and dedicated medical workers will not stop until the virus is under control. These “essential workers” need our support too. As we begin a second year in the fight, leave dinner on a porch for the nurse coming home from a double shift. She won’t have to order pizza again. Send a card just to say, “Thank you for staying the course.” I think most of us see medical front line soldiers as heroes.
There was no way to predict how violent the events of last summer would affect our country. The majority of Americans just want to work, raise their families, be free to worship, and to be left alone. Unfortunately, the minority of Americans, like the mainstream media and politicians, seem to be clueless as to what people want or need. When I think about last summer, it all seems so senseless. Was anything really achieved?
Black Lives Matter, and other activist groups led protests in over 4,500 cities, including every state and Washington DC, as well as over sixty countries. Although the mainstream media and some politicians minimized the protests and riots, by June 2020, the riots resulted in two deaths, 604 arrests, and upwards of $500 million in property damage. The worst damage occurred in 1,500 locations in cities throughout the country.
I was 25 years old during the Rodney King riots, and with a five year old son, a full time job, and grad school there wasn’t much time to watch the news. I did my best to follow what was going on, and for a good reason. I was raising a child in a generation where I hoped racial division would only exist as a subject discussed in history class. While doing my undergraduate degree in history at Marshall University, I managed to get into a honor’s intense study of the 1960’s. The class covered counter culture, music, Vietnam, and of course, The Civil Rights movement. There were four professors from the psychology, social work, and history departments. I chose Civil Rights as my main focus of study and did a term paper on the movement. I even orgainized a protest on campus and got an “A” in the class. Prior to the class, I knew very little about civil rights, segregation, or even slavery. I didn’t know what a “lynching” was, and although I knew what the “KKK” was, I didn’t have an educated understanding until college. My ignorance came honestly. I grew up in an all white town and went to an all white school. My Father taught my four siblings and me to love everyone and the morals and values instilled in me came in handy when I learned my freshman roommate was black. Jaylynn and I became fast friends. When I think back, I realize how much we both learned during our year together. We were so different yet so much alike! We wore different clothes, listened to different music and even ate different food. But at night, with lights off and us chatting before sleep came, we were just two silly girls talking about this boy and that boy. Jaylynn’s friends would come in during the evenings and order pizza. They teased me relentlessly for being a “white girl” but it was all in good fun. I was young, but smart enough to know how much I didn’t know. The summer of the Rodney King riots caught my attention, but not enough for me to really understand. When George Floyd was murdered in the heat of early summer, it was as if the events of the past came full circle.
The homicide of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, was a moment in time we will never forget. Thanks to camera phones, we watched a man die at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, as he knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. Three other police officers assisted in the arrest, and despite bystanders pleading for the officer to let up, Mr. Floyd died. It was shocking. It was revolting. Protests and riots immediately started, not only in Minneapolis, but in cities all over the country. I was not surprised when this happened. Civil unrest has been brewing for the last few years and tension between law enforcement and people of color has continued to rise. Historically, violence tends to be higher during the summer. Domestic violence was already on the rise due to people being forced to “shelter in place” or be quarantined. For some people, hanging out at home wasn’t so bad. The mainstream media and politicians didn’t seem to think it was a hardship, most likely because they had jobs and summer houses in the Hamptons.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education, I had an opportunity to teach for three months at the high school where I did my student teaching. My supervising teacher was having surgery and requested me. She told me I could teach whatever I wanted, and I told her I wanted to teach a six weeks course about the Civil Right’s movement. I remember the look in her eye, a raised eyebrow and a reminder some of our students had father’s who were active in the local Klan. I knew it, which is why I was determined to educate them. She wished me well, and I guess she asked a couple of other teachers to look after me. I was warned my tires may be slashed by an angry parent, but I wasn’t afraid. I am now aware I was young and naive.
On the first day of class, I told my students there would be two grades for the entire six weeks, and both exams would be essays. Grammer and spelling would not be graded, only content. The students would not be graded on their beliefs, but on their ability to use critical thinking skills. This freaked some of the more concientous students out, because they knew one good grade would not guarantee doing well. I was determined to put my new teaching skills to the test. Looking back, it is both funny and scary. There was no sugar coating the history of slavery. I couldn’t change the pictures of lynchings on the overhead projector. Images of black men hanging for crimes they did not commit were purposely placed in front of my students in order to bear witness to the horror that happened. I wanted to give the all white students at the all white school what I was not given. I managed to cover most of the biggest events of the Civil Right’s movement, starting with the “Emancipation Proculation” to Little Rock, Arkansas and everything in the middle. Looking back, I realize the lessons were intended to have shock value. But when the final essay reports were turned in, 98% of my students changed their minds. Where the first essay sounded like things they heard from parents or other adults, like “I believe we should be separate because we are different” or “it’s not our fault what happened so why should we care?” the final essays were written with so much emotion it shocked me! “I can’t believe I never knew how bad it was. I am so glad I know this now.” and “I feel ashamed because I know now I have been prejudiced.”
There were two students who didn’t change their mind. They wrote their racist opinions, same as the first essay. These were sons of the local Klan leaders. As promised, the two students passed the class because I gave my word they would not be judged on their beliefs.
It’s been thirty two years since I took a risk and taught something out of the norm, a subject so important to me I was willing to face whatever consequences came. When things come full circle, we always will be brought back to that place. This is something I believe spiritually, and last spring, I once again found myself in a place where to do nothing was not an option.
While the protests and riots raged around the country, a group of young adults held protests peacefully for several weeks in our small hometown. My husband and I lived in the center of town, so we had a front row seat. We were supposed to be “sheltered in place” and most everything was shut down, so raising our windows to watch the action was somewhat entertaining. I think mostly we were praying for the safety of everyone. Statesville is a small southern town and we take care of each other.
One day, I was talking to a friend who shared with me the pain she felt as a woman of color when she walked past the statue. She said, “It’s like, they are saying, “You are free, but we still got you. We are still here, and you are still there.” Her words touched me deeply. I shared with her how I used photographs, stories, and even movies to teach about the history of racism and I believed my students learned from the things I exposed them to. Even as my son grew up, I would take every opportunity to teach him, and if we passed by a confederate statue, there would be a lesson.
After a few days, the protesters took their BLM signs down the street and stood in front of the county courthouse where Statesville’s confederate statue stands. My husband, Kevin, and I would drive by and me, the momma bear, would do a quick look around to make sure the small group was not in danger. I was proud of the protesters for not damaging the statue, and for not destroying property or hurting others.
My friend’s comments stayed with me, and I told my husband, Kevin, I wanted to walk down and talk to the young people, ask them how the statue caused them pain, and to encourage them to take their cause to the city council. I wanted to see them follow the law, and not get in trouble or hurt. The next day my husband and I got Covid. I never got to talk to the group and within the small window of two weeks of sleeping off the weirdest flu ever, counter protesters had set up across the street and it appeared things were heating up. The police were now present, and that gave me some comfort. Both groups had Facebook pages, and so I recovered by reading their posts and trying to make sense of what was going on. There was a lot of conflict and fighting on the group pages, and although I can’t blame it on fever, I decided to talk to the leaders of both groups. I wanted to know what was going on. My intent was sincere, but I peeked down the rabbithole and being clumsy, I fell in. Before I knew it, my name was on these group pages, and I was being called a racist. My husband’s phone rang and he was told what was going on. We own a building and we were immediately concerned for all of our tenants. We threw on clothes and walked down to where the protests were going on with the intention of making peace. Unfortunately, some of the protesters were arrested, and there was no way to make it right. We decided to ride out the storm, and it eventually passed.
To protect our tenants, I tried my best to stay below the radar but the truth is, I am still the same 22 year old teacher determined to educate 11th grade honor students on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in a high school known for white supremacy. I have often told my clients their best qualities are the ones that will eventually take them down. I am well aware the pickles I manage to get into are self inflicted.
Once again, I found myself at a crossroads. I continued to be called a racist, and because we were new in town there was no reason for people not to believe it. It wasn’t true, but I could not stop it. For a couple of days I was angry and upset, but then I turned to God. One afternoon I found myself deep in thought and suddenly I knew. This moment in time was finally, FULL CIRCLE. Suddenly, I found a sense of peace I never felt before. I no longer cared what other’s thought about me, because the people who loved me knew there was no truth and certainly no power in the lies of others. This moment of truth went much deeper than being called a horrible name. I realized I could not save the world, but I could save myself.
On January 6, 2021 a busload of people from our town traveled to Washington DC for a “patriotic rally”. I know the day may now be called other things, but the people leaving Statesville were going to support The President. They planned to meet other patriots, wave flags, and listen to their president speak. I asked a few people to keep us informed by social media and many people sent pictures and videos of everyone having a good time. In fact, the first evening I received a video of several people dancing in the lobby of a hotel, just having a great time! It wasn’t until late afternoon on Wednesday when I got a text saying, “We are okay. We are safe in our hotel and not at the capitol, we are not involved.”
Involved? I was doing errands all afternoon and had not heard the news. I found a channel on my car phone, and was able to hear what was happening in real time. I immediately called Kevin and said, “Turn on the news, babe. This is bad. This is really bad.” Like everyone, the events of January 6th are still being processed in my mind. Over time, I will form a more insightful opinion about what happened, but I am sure there is so much I don’t know. I have decided to take a long break from the political world and put my energy into more of what I love. No worries! I love my God, country, town, family, and my Yorkie, Bella.
Over 500,000 people in our country have died from Covid-19 to date, and the numbers are most likely higher. Let the number sink in, and then think about all the ridiculous stuff we allow to occupy our time and energy. Thankfully, 1/3 of the population has received at least the first part of the vaccination, and by summer every person who wishes to be vaccinated for Covid-19 should be. It’s time to stop the hate. It’s time to ignore the media and politicians and just be ourselves. We are the backbone of this amazing country and we all want the same things. Our small Southern town of Statesville, NC is not a place for hate, but a place for community, friendship and love. It’s time for me to rip up the letter from so long ago. It’s time to forgive and it’s time to heal. It will not happen magically, and it will take letting go of past negative experiences and feelings. My friend, Valerie, says it best. “We must meet each other where we are, and build from that.” She couldn’t be more correct, and as a lifelong member of this community she understands the dynamics much better than I do.
If my Grandfather were living today, he would tell me to start conversations with the part of the community who do feel pain from a lifetime of systematic racism. My Grandfather would instruct me to identify the needs of the people and to begin organizing in the community programs to address the problems. He would encourage me to knock on the doors of churches, civic clubs and even big businesses. When my Grandpa was truant officer there were not community grants and federal money to improve the lives of the disenfranchised, regardless of race, sex, cultural background or religious. I know it’s a big job. I understand it’s daunting. But I also know my husband and I invested in this town for a reason. This town is loved. We moved here because we desperately wanted to be a part of something amazing. There is no room for apathy. We’ve worked too hard. I ask the citizens of Statesville, stand tall and fight. We must not allow hate to rule our home. Will you stand with us? Will you meet us in the middle?
Author’s Note: We are approaching summer while the trial of George Floyd is beginning in Minneapolis. The media has not said much because they are busy with other things. Make no mistake, there will be consequences, regardless of the outcome of the trial. We cannot control the behavior of people outside our community, but we can control our own behavior and the way we treat each other. There is a national movement to call upon churches to have what most of us remember as “old-fashioned summer revivals.” Call upon the leaders of our faith based organizations to be there when things get tough so people will have an alternative place to go when feeling hopeless and angry. Call upon the leaders of the clergy as well as other leaders to be ready to step in and help. Every adult in this town should ask, “God, what would you have me to do?” My skills as a therapist make me a great listener, and I will be there when tempers and tears collide. This is not a political contest. We are “All hands on deck! Save our ship!”
Every night before I sleep, I pray for our town. I know my prayers are not in vain and are accompanied by thousands of others. Join us in asking God to bless us and to keep us safe. We will keep watch over our town and over our neighbors. We will have faith, hope and love, and will know above all, love abides.