Home Augusta County: Black and white, and read all over

Augusta County: Black and white, and read all over


augusta-county2editsWinter of 1976. I’m four, tagging along with my grandmother, who worked at Western State Hospital in Staunton, at an employee Christmas party.

Time gives perspective to things that you can’t have at the age of four, but looking back on it, Western State must have had the most diverse workforce in Augusta County, black, white, Asian, primarily, but mix was the word, definitely not at all lily-white.

What I remember from that night is a blur leading up to me getting thrust into a game of cakewalk, basically musical chairs, a fresh, home-baked cake to the winner.

I ended up the winner. I remember that, and more the reaction. I was by far the youngest participant, and the adults and older kids, most of them black, couldn’t believe that the little white boy had won, and made a big scene about it.

I remember the words, and wondering what the big deal was, and more than a little anxious at what was going on around me, which I didn’t understand.

I was a little white boy? And there was something wrong about that?

I burst into tears and ran to my granny, who was none too pleased. At me, for crying.

Don’t ever, I remember her telling me, let anybody put you down like that. You need to be able to stand up for yourself.

Nobody in this world is better than anybody else.

But, and this was the lesson that set me on a different course in life, don’t go around acting like you’re better than anybody else. We’re all equal, we’re all the same.

Context might be helpful here. You’re reading the words of an online news editor, author, local radio and TV personality, entrepreneur, white guy, and you would be excused for thinking I came from money, because wrong you’d be on that point. I grew up in a trailer park, my parents split when I was 13, my father was never really around even before that.

Then to my grandmother. She wasn’t what you’d think of as some trailblazing local civil-rights pioneer. She volunteered for the George Wallace presidential campaign. Process that. George Wallace. Had to be a racist, right?

We’re all full of complexities, contradictions, things about us don’t always make sense, and I’d say the same about us from an individual, psychology, perspective, and then also from a collective, sociology, perspective.

My granny, still then an active George Wallace political supporter, was at the same time teaching her grandson to treat everyone as equals, and expect the same treatment in return. The Augusta County that is in our DNA, our family history dating here back to the 1730s, when white settlers first started building encampments in this part of the Valley of Virginia, well, we have our own issues here with this, today, still.

This week, a member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, Tracy Pyles, launching another one of his tirades, this time against a newspaper reporter, for writing about a questionable closed meeting of the board to discuss options related to the aging Augusta County Courthouse, let slip a racial epithet, calling the reporter, an African-American, “boy.”

Oooh, yeah. Not good. Pyles, according to media accounts, realized the gaffe almost immediately, trying to choke back the word, to “son,” but the damage was done, and heightened when Pyles defended himself by saying that he often refers to people as “son,” unwittingly doubling down, caricaturing himself as a paternalistic Old South genteel, a Boss Hogg without the white suit.

I know Tracy Pyles, have known him for 20 years, and he’s known my family, my dad’s side, since he was a kid, growing up in Deerfield in the western corner of Augusta County, going to school in a one-room schoolhouse. It’s fashionable, and easy, these days to take your turn throwing Tracy under the bus for the “boy” gaffe, fashionable because doing so gives you distance from your own imperfections, and easy because Tracy rubs a lot of people the wrong way, even including his most ardent defenders, with his combative style.

It’s also become de rigeur to throw the other members of the Board of Supervisors under the bus with Tracy, because no one among the other six members of the board stepped up to call him out after he let slip the “boy” slur, and themselves doubled down afterward, either not responding to efforts by news reporters for comment, or when offering comment claiming to have not heard the slur. This is said to be indicative of some deeper-seated problem in Augusta County, the good ol’ boys protecting one of their own, in doing so endorsing backwards, backwoods, dueling banjos attitudes on racial discourse.

Extrapolating from that, then, we’re supposed to lash ourselves, according to one columnist, for stifling our own progress. The reason our kids move away, never to return, is because of these prevailing attitudes, and because these prevailing attitudes are keeping people, investors, entrepreneurs, their money, from wanting to invest their time and money here.

A couple of points on that thesis. One, to the population drain: it doesn’t exist, to put it mildly. In 1970, two years before I was born, the Census had Augusta County’s population at 44,220. Today the Census estimate has the county with 73,750 residents, growth of 66.2 percent over the 45-year period.

All I’ve known in my lifetime is a bustling county trying to keep up with the growth, industries (Hershey, McKee, Target, among others) flocking here to set up shop, new,bigger, more modern schools being built to replace the old, outdated community schools (Tracy’s old one-room schoolhouse is now a library; my elementary school in Crimora, north of Waynesboro, is now a community center).

I’m not that old, but I feel like it when I drive around with my teenage nieces and talk about how I remember when that area over there used to be a pretty empty field with a great view of the mountains, or there didn’t used to be any stoplights in Stuarts Draft, and 340 there was a quiet two-lane road.

Augusta County is going to grow no matter what we do, and not because of us, either. Those of us who were born here, whose roots are 300 years entrenched, those who moved here after for the same reason as those early settlers, because it’s just damn beautiful, the mountains, the valleys, the blue skies, we have our own reasons. The money is attracted here because it happens that our beauty happens to wrap around two interstates, 81 and 64, that connect the east and west, and happen to connect right in the middle of where we live.

That’s why Hershey is here, why McKee is here, why Target is here, why Toyota wanted to be here, and why the next big corporate suitor includes us on the short list: location, location, location.

Not saying here that we can sit back and play our banjos and talk down to newspaper reporters like plantation owners did slaves. As we’ve grown, we have had growing pains, with debates amongst ourselves about how to manage growth, how to provide the services for a bustling population, to best provide education and then opportunities for our children, and yes, how to be more accommodating.

I’m a from-here, and it’s hard not to notice how important that it is to some, whether you’re a from-here or a come-here. This to me is part of the undercurrent in social media for critics of the news coverage of the slur decrying the attention given to what they feel was a mere slip of the tongue.

Not in so many words, but the sense you get is, damn liberal media, turning down their noses on us over what, calling somebody “boy,” like this is 1955?

What those folks are missing is that slips of the tongue come from somewhere. Even talking down to a white reporter who writes a story that you don’t like about a local government closed meeting is inappropriate, paternalistic, chauvinistic and whatever other labels you want to put on it; using the word “boy” to refer to a 43-year-old black man goes beyond the pale, because we all know the history of that word in the context of race relations, in the South and in the American experience.

But the critics do have a point regarding the sensational aspects to the media accounts. Augusta County is remarkably conservative, the reddest part of the red part of Virginia, voting 70 percent-plus in presidential and state elections for Republican candidates, and it’s easy for media accounts of the Pyles slur to paint with a wide brush with a mix of Republican and racist in the paint can.

Except that Pyles, now nominally an independent, was elected and re-elected to the board first as a Democrat, and ran for the House of Delegates as a Democrat, and not as one of those old Southern Democrats who waved the bloody flag. The trend that has columnists worried about the future for our young residents who move away in droves for lack of opportunity has been a cause pushed by Pyles dating back more than a decade, Pyles, being Pyles, in love with the dizzying array of charts and graphs that he puts together as part of his analysis of the various issues of the day, has demonstrated ably.

The guy slipped; he screwed up, big time. It won’t be the first line in his obituary. Tracy Pyles isn’t a racist. Board members on the dais with him aren’t racists because they didn’t make a show of shouting him down when the word “boy” passed his lips.

My grandmother wasn’t a racist. She used words that would make you think otherwise, words that I don’t say out loud, and if I heard them, I’d assume that the person saying them was racist, without questioning it. But she worked in an environment that gave her daily exposure to people from different backgrounds, and that experience got passed down to her children and grandchildren.

That cakewalk and its aftermath was a defining moment in my life. My attitudes on race, economic justice, politics, how it all makes sense, life, were forged that night.

My grandmother wasn’t perfect, but nobody is. All we can do is learn and try to get better.

The Augusta County that I know and love is full of similar contradictions, good and bad, black and white, and for the time being, read all over.

– Column by Chris Graham



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