“On a class visit one day I asked the children if they knew why they had to sit on the back seats of the street cars? And why do you have to go in the back door of the Broad Street Station? And why is it that you cannot become a policeman or a fireman? Why are there so many things that you cannot do? No child had any idea, until finally one little boy stood up and said, “I know, because to be a Negro is to be the last thing on earth.”
They may be Negroes, but they were people, and they were supposed to be like other people. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in the Confederate States in 1863 and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were added to the Constitution following the close of the Civil War, our attention was never called to this portion of history, and the public libraries were closed to Negroes. We were almost in as severe a bondage as slavery. We experienced one of history’s most infamous periods of persecution solely because of race.The young people today cannot realize how difficult it was to accomplish anything with so much opposition from all sides. The road blocks were everywhere. We literally had to make bricks without straw.
I saw to it that books from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History were available to our children, parents, and teachers. Another area of instruction were biographies and poetry of Negroes.
It was brought to the attention of children, parents, and the community at large, that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people meant that it was the duty and responsibility of the people to change certain conditions. Most adults are interested in fair employment, good living conditions, fair wages and working conditions, etc. But we ALL have to vote to obtain these things!
One road block was the poll tax. Another was being required to remember the items to be written on the blank sheet of paper without any assistance. For twenty-five years as an elementary principle, my faculty and I carried on a program of citizenship education, emphasis being made upon the duties to be performed if one wished a government of the people, by and for the people.
We had to ease the road blocks in the way of Negro voting. The blank sheet of paper was removed when we taught all pupils beginning with the third grade, how to register. They in turn taught their parents and received a gold star for their effort. We raised money and set up a citizenship loan fund so that even parents on relief could pay their poll tax. We kept the issues before the parents and children. We knew what we wanted. Pupils made a children’s poll book. Each child paid a poll tax of five cents on or before the sixth month deadline. You may be sure that parents were reminded to pay their poll tax on time. We aimed for 100% registration!
It was brought to the understanding of the pupils and patrons that voters must elect fair-minded officials in order to have a good government. Arrangements were made for parents and pupils to visit the meetings of the Richmond City council and the Virginia General Assembly from time to time.
Getting ready for mock elections was a rich experience for our children. We concentrated on the issues and the importance of voting in large numbers if we wanted to change intolerable conditions.
The children felt a sense of achievement as they not only persuaded their parents to become voters, but also their relatives and neighbors. Our precinct had more qualified Negro voters who actually voted than any other Negro precinct in our city.”
As I read this story and the role the school played in promoting good citizenship, I wonder how schools today are emphasizing “the duties to be performed if one wished a government of the people, by and for the people.” Mrs. Overby truly believed “to be a good teacher, you first have to be a good citizen.” She was a founding member of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, served with the Urban League for 38 years and fought to help raise teacher wages.
Teachers and Administrators like Mrs. Ethel Overby are truly unsung heroes in our communities and I believe it is their stories and wisdom that can help guide us toward a brighter future as a city.
Like Mrs. Overby, we believe the telling of these stories of African American pioneers is important and the Historic Brookland Park community is filled with amazing stories. If you have an unsung hero story related to the Historic Brookland Park community, please let us know. We would love to add it to our story library and potentially incorporate it into our Unsung Heroes presentation next spring.