The Virginia Interscholastic Association (VIA) Hall of Fame was created in 2014 to recognize Virginia’s Black teachers, coaches, administrators, and student-athletes who excelled during the Jim Crow era despite the obstacles. The following story includes excerpts from the acceptance speech I gave for the nine people who were inducted during the VIA Hall of Fame banquet in Charlottesville, Va. on June 23, 2023.
Considering what is happening in our country today, the VIA Heritage Association, founded in 2014, demonstrated remarkable foresight in its decision to preserve and digitize the history of Virginia’s Black administrators, teachers, coaches, and student-athletes during the Jim Crow era. Who knew that after more than 50 years of steady racial progress, influential U.S. state and national political leaders -embolden by large segments of white America – would engage in a plan designed to erase Black history and deny many of us the right to vote? They are executing their plan brazenly, contemptuously, disdainfully. If unchecked, Jim Crow once again will be rapping on our doors.
Since Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential elections, thanks to overwhelming support from Black voters, Republican leaders have been working overtime to suppress the Black vote and not just in the South. By May 2021, Republican state legislators in 48 states had passed or proposed 389 restrictive voting laws designed to prevent tens of millions of people of color from casting ballots in future state and national elections. Thus far, 19 states have approved laws that restrict voting access and undercut the authority of regional election administrators.
Here’s what Maryland Governor Wes Moore told Morehouse College graduates at their commencement last May: “Our history is our power. When politicians ban books and muzzle educators, they say it’s an effort to prevent ‘discomfort and guilt,’ but we know that’s not true. This is not about fear of making people feel bad. This is about fear of people understanding their power. This is about fear of you realizing that you come from a long line of titans – and visionaries – and dreamers – and pioneers – people who defied the odds and helped build this nation with their hands, their hearts, and their minds.”
I know that I will never forget the dedicated teachers and coaches who influenced me during my secondary school years at Y. H. Thomas Junior High (1954 – 1957), and George P. Phenix High (1957 – 1960), both of Hampton. Most Black teens in my age group throughout the South were taught and guided by teachers and administrators who were high achievers. Black strivers, smart people, who yearned to be the best that they could be but were never allowed to fly because of the color of their skin. They were denied the chance to be considered for better jobs, better opportunities. Still, our unsung heroes and heroines pushed on, motivated by the belief that the doors closed to them would be open to us when we became adults.
Who had the better teachers, Maggie Walker High of Richmond, or Phenix High? That was the ‘hot topic’ that Arthur Ashe and I often debated between breaks covering tennis at Wimbledon. In 1980, Arthur, an all-time tennis great, became an HBO tennis analyst; I covered tennis for USA Today.
What causes the uncontrollable rage and hatred that so many whites, without provocation, have shown against Black Americans during the last few centuries? An absence of empathy, maybe? My Miriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as the ability to experience “as one’s own, the feelings of another.” Over the years a large chunk of White America has been neither willing nor interested in experiencing the pain many people of color have known.
The late Eric Hoffer, a white social philosopher and author, provided plausible insight into the disturbed mind of too many White Americans when he wrote: “The most effective way to silence our guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination. We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate or persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt.”
We live in dangerous times and have no choice but to step up, speak out, and as Barack Obama, our 44th president often said, ‘Vote!”
The 2023 Hall of Fame inductees were: Carl B. Jackson, Burley High, Charlottesville; Eric R. “Duke’ McCaskill, Sr., Huntington High, Newport News; Alvin N. Puryear (posthumously), Phenix High, Hampton; Walter ‘Rock’ Greene, Burley High, Charlottesville; Thomas Hooker, Southside High, Dinwiddie; Louis Johnson, Parker-Gray, Alexandria; Mary Winston Jackson, Phenix High, Hampton; Frank J. Smith, Armstrong High, Richmond, and Doug Smith, Phenix High, Hampton.