Growing up Black in Rappahannock…

James D. Russell, the great-grandson of a slave, was born in a little house in Sperryville in 1921 and lived until five years ago.  In 2003 his memoir was published: “Beyond the Rim: From Slavery to Redemption in Rapphannock County, Virginia.”

The book is about, and is dedicated to, his great-grandmother Caroline Terry, a slave on at least two different plantations in Rappahannock County.

After telling Caroline Terry’s story, James Russell tells of his own youth in and around Sperryville. Here is an excerpt from that book, as recorded by the noted journalist Jim Gannon:

Bertie May Stafford was a teacher of note.  She had a master’s degree from the University of Indiana.  She was a teacher’s teacher — very well prepared, capable.

She attracted the admiration, as well as the envy, of all the local teachers here, black and white. There was a white teacher here, and my uncle overheard a conversation between her and some local people. They asked, “What do you think of that black teacher up there, Bertie May Stafford?”

And her reply was, “Well, I don’t know. I like her and I don’t like her.  I don’t like no black nigger over top of me.”  She meant that the black teacher had a degree higher than she had.  Those were her words.

In those years, as a young black child, I felt alienated, outcast, subhuman.  Why?  For example, going to school, we walked while the other kids rode.  The white kids spit out the window of the bus, threw spitballs at us, or whatever projectiles they had.  I wondered, what was wrong with me?  Why do I have to walk?  Those were the ideas that were in my mind then because of the social status of blacks.  In one word, I felt alienated.

Our parents and teachers dealt with that by teaching us to become the best.

My father was a teacher for 33 years.  Learn, absorb, and demonstrate that you are capable, as capable as other person.  Don’t ever think that because of your racial background that you are not capable as a human being, or as other persons.  You have the capacity to do, to develop and produce, given a level playing ground.

Just because the back of the bus was your lot, it still didn’t mean that you were inferior.  It was the social system of the time; it was the law of the land.

Jim Gannon also wrote a fine piece about James Russell that appeared in the Rappahannock News of January 30th, 2010.  You can read that piece by checking the Rappahannock News archives.

The Russell book is available in local libraries and on Amazon.

by Jed Duvall, Amissville