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Youth of all races face new challenges

by Larry S. Chowning

Assistant Middlesex County School Superintendent Rashard J. Wright gave a historical and social commentary in observance of Black History Month on Thursday, Feb. 19, as part of a Middlesex County Museum program at the historical courthouse in Saluda.

Wright spoke on “Cultural Context and Courageous Conversation.” He said an example of “cultural context” is when people say, “A black man’s ketchup is hot sauce, and we laugh about it.”

“Culturally, everybody is a little different but a little the same,” said Wright. “We (black and white) talk a little different at the Thanksgiving table, but we are there for the same reason.”

“Many young people do not have a clear understanding of right and wrong anymore.” – Rashard Wright
Courageous conversation is when people—black and white, young and old—can sit down and talk without being inhibited about social, cultural and economic issues that have been ignored or glossed over for generations, he said.

Wright noted that black history is an important part of our nation’s heritage and should be remembered.  He mentioned important moments in history that guided change and allowed freedom to emerge. The slave rebellion by Nat Turner, Lord Dunmore’s effort to free the slaves at the start of the Revolutionary War, slave revolts in Richmond and South Carolina, John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry and the impact of the Civil War were all mentioned in his lecture.

Culturally, every generation changes, said Wright, and as a black American he has experienced cultural changes that are different from his mother’s. As an example, he noted that his mother, when speaking to whites or blacks, uses “Yes Ma’am” and “Yes Sir.” Her use of these phrases is a cultural context that reflects her upbringing and her status in life, he said.

He also said cultural differences between Newport News, where he grew up, and here in Middlesex, are evident. “I hear people in this county use the word ‘folks’ when referring to groups of people, but I did not hear this term much in Newport News,” he said.


Wright noted that education, above all else, has helped to change attitudes of both blacks and whites. He said there was very little education for slaves in Middlesex and noted it was unlawful to educate slaves. Yet, it was better for the generations after slavery as black churches started elementary schools for black children. 

Wright said World War II gave whites and blacks “exposure” to one another in the military, and was beneficial in paving the way for changes in attitudes concerning education and segregation. “Those who went off to war and came back were more likely to push their family members to become educated,” he said.

He praised Middlesex’s Juanita Tabb who signed the court order that brought integration to the county. He also praised the 13 black children who entered Middlesex High School in 1964 as the first blacks to integrate the public schools.

Several in the audience said they were at Middlesex High School during the early years of integration in the mid and late 1960s. The first group of blacks enrolled under a “freedom of choice” policy, which gave individuals a choice to either attend their all-black school (St. Clare Walker High) or Middlesex High. 

Middlesex County schools were totally integrated in the fall of 1969.  “It was quite a change going from an all-black school to a former all-white school,” said a lady in the audience who entered Middlesex High School in 1969.  “Some whites wouldn’t even look us in the face.”

Wright warned that problems faced by young people in 1964 and 1969 are different from those faced today. Culturally, blacks and whites have changed, but there are still problems. “Whether you are black or white now, young people are not being as successful in this pop culture era as they should be,” he said. 

He voiced concern over the high statewide high school dropout rate and the problems dropouts will face the rest of their lives. He noted people have to be able to make enough money to support themselves, and without a high school degree this will be hard. 

“I look at the statewide dropout rate and it’s frightening,” said Wright.  “We worry so much about race and color that often we forget there are two generations of young people struggling with their identity. Pop culture is the issue. Baggy pants and negative characteristics are bicultural. You can’t say it is black and you can’t say it is white. You say it is pop culture.  This culture says that negative characteristics are all right. 

“It’s all right for a white boy to call another white boy a ‘bubba,’ but when a black person does this, the white boy wants to fight the black boy,” said Wright. “When a black calls another black boy the ‘N’ word, it’s all right, but when a white boy does it, the blacks want to fight.”

Wright spoke of his neighborhood in Newport News where he was able to get an education and move up in life. He said he was among the lucky ones, and many of his friends did not make it.

He noted that he did not have a father in his family’s Newport News home. “This is a white and black problem,” he said. “For every one of us who made it, there are two or three who didn’t. Many didn’t have a father in the home because it became popular for fathers not to take care of their kids.”

Wright stressed this is a negative cultural problem that many young people have to face—and it’s not easy.

He noted that education is the key to freedom and quality of life. He cautioned that all the work done in the 1960s by the Civil Rights movement could be overshadowed by negatives that have become acceptable.

“Many young people do not have a clear understanding of right and wrong anymore,” he said. “After all this work, we still have major issues that need to be addressed, and education is the key to providing answers to those problems.”

During the program, the late Josh Holmes was honored by having a name plate placed on his portrait at the courthouse. Holmes was the first black sheriff of Middlesex County and served from 1979-1983. He also was a county deputy sheriff for many years. He died last year.

posted 02.26.2009

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