InsideODU: News for Faculty and Staff
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Section Heading: Feature

University archivist Sonia Yaco
Stories Collected by DOVE Project Exhibit Help Fill in Gaps in State’s Desegregation History

Sonia Yaco fully expected to record lots of oral histories and collect a variety of photographs and materials when the Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) project took its “School Desegregation: Learn, Preserve and Empower” exhibit on the road this spring throughout the commonwealth.

That, after all, was the purpose of the collaborative history project, which DOVE created and for which it solicited co-sponsors in AARP Virginia, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP and the Urban League of Hampton Roads.

But Old Dominion University’s Special Collections librarian and university archivist did not expect the degree to which the traveling exhibit would have a healing effect on a number of the participants. And she was certainly taken by surprise when a woman by the name of Paula Kay Martin Smith showed up for the event in Lynchburg on June 2 (see photo below).

It turns out that Smith was, literally, the face of the exhibit. As she would explain to Yaco, it was a photograph of her as a 10-year-old that DOVE used on its promotional materials and portable display for the “School Desegregation: Learn, Preserve and Empower” initiative. The picture was among a selection of photos that NAACP Virginia lent for use in the exhibit.

Hearing Smith’s story and collecting the oral histories of 66 other Virginians was a rewarding experience, Yaco said. More importantly, it has helped fill in the gaps, adding much-needed information about the state’s desegregation history.

"Public records and newspaper accounts tell part of this tale. But still missing are the stories told by those affected by integration," said Yaco, who founded DOVE in 2008 and serves as its co-chair. "Where are these stories? For most communities, the answer is nowhere. The experience of black children who walked into white schools, and the stories of the white children who were bused to black schools, is missing from history."

For African Americans who experienced desegregation and faced the ugliness of racial discrimination on a daily basis, being asked to share their stories gave rise to mixed emotions. Many had attended segregated schools, whose facilities and textbooks were undeniably inferior when compared to those of white students, and whose teachers historically were paid less than their white counterparts. Yet many participants said they received better education in segregated schools than in integrated schools.

“Going into communities where I’m an outsider, and asking people who have very painful memories to share their experiences of desegregation, I was struck by the generosity and courage of these people to tell their stories,” Yaco said. Robert Sawyers, the ODU Special Collections intern who was retained to staff the exhibitions and help conduct the interviews, described the telling of the stories as “cathartic.”

“For many people, it was the first time they had talked about it,” Yaco said. “My friend who transcribed one of the tapes said that what struck her most was listening to two elderly people who had started giving their oral history together, but were dancing around the point. They said they had never felt safe talking about this until now. And that’s pretty incredible.”

At stops in Melfa on the Eastern Shore, Hampton, Farmville, Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg, people came to view the exhibit, talk to others with similar experiences and add their own stories to the public record. Many ended up staying the whole day.

“I thought this traveling exhibit would be a chance to educate some people and raise the profile of the project, and it did that. But what it also did was it healed people. There were people from around the country that wrote me and said that they cried when they heard about it. They weren’t able to come, but just knowing that we cared about that history and what they went through in integrating the schools had a transformative effect,” Yaco said.

One woman from Pennsylvania, however, did make the drive to Richmond on May 12 just to share her story. Vanessa McCoy-Owens had gone to school in Virginia Beach back in the Princess Anne County days and was excited to have the chance to talk about her experiences.

“She went from a segregated school in which she had a lot of friends to an integrated school where she was treated horribly, horribly,” Yaco recalled.

McCoy-Owens, CEO of the Martin Luther King Family Life Center in Lebanon, Pa., said she still remembers the “many injustices” she suffered as a schoolchild, everything from name calling to spitting. Her experience in going from an all-black school to a segregated one, she said, was the “plight of a little defenseless child surrounded by hatred.”

And then there was the story of Smith.

“As it turned out, I couldn’t have picked a better poster child for the exhibit,” Yaco said. “The first year she taught in public schools was the first year that Pittsylvania County integrated.”

When Yaco selected Smith’s photo, she had no idea who the girl in the picture was or why it had been taken. The picture, as she would later learn, was taken for Smith’s presentation of an NAACP award to Jackie Robinson, the African American who broke the color barrier in professional baseball.

In her oral history, Smith, now retired and in her mid-60s, talked about her dual life growing up in Danville. Her father was the owner of the first black-owned, certified bank in Virginia, and thanks to his foresight, she became the first youth in the state to have a paid Life Membership in the NAACP. But although Smith grew up in an upper-class African American family, she nevertheless experienced discrimination in the larger community.

“If she went to another bank in the city, she would have to use the ‘colored’ washroom,” Yaco said. “She talked about that duality.”

Smith brought a picture of herself standing next to a sign for the Prince Edward County Park for Negroes, Yaco said. “It used to be that there weren’t any state parks that could be used by African Americans. Her dad sued the state, so they created one. There’s a historical marker there now.”

Prince Edward County, incidentally, closed its public schools for five years to avoid integration during Virginia’s period of “massive resistance,” which was initiated by Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board decision.

Yaco was delighted when Smith asked if the exhibit could also come to Danville. The answer, of course, was yes, and AARP plans to host an event there later this summer. It will also be on display at the Western History Museum in Roanoke in July; Norfolk’s African American newspaper, the New Journal & Guide, plans to feature the DOVE exhibit at its 120th anniversary event in October. In the process, more oral histories will be collected this summer and fall.

Yaco, who said she believes the project would be ideal for a university history class assignment, where students could interview community residents, added that a state nursing home company has volunteered to interview some of its residents about their experiences after hearing about the project.

Yaco noted that the project is also interested in collecting oral histories from whites, Native Americans, Asians and Hispanics who experienced desegregation in Virginia, which officially began on Feb. 2, 1959, and continued through the early 1970s.

In setting up shop in cities across the commonwealth, DOVE attempted to reach as many people as possible. From Richmond came stories about sit-in protests at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and Thalhimers department store. In Melfa, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, eight oral histories were recorded. “It may not sound like a lot, but it’s all there is, it’s the sole documentation that exists on the experience of how schools were desegregated there,” Yaco said. “That’s it. We have all of it now. This is an incredible addition to scholarship, so if somebody now wants to write about this period of history in that locale, they’ve got a body of work.”

One woman whose grandfather donated land for the first African American school on the Eastern Shore of Virginia plans to donate photographs of the school. The originals, Yaco said, will go to Salisbury University in Maryland, which collects historical material from the Eastern Shore on both sides of the state line.

“People can think of libraries or archives as something very separate from life – as places where there are books and papers. What I try to teach my students is that it’s people we have here in these boxes. We can have an effect on people’s lives. This project has made it very clear to me that we can, and that universities have a role and libraries have a role.”

Yaco said the process of transcribing the oral histories will be ongoing, and work continues on scanning and cataloging printed material and photos. Together, the collection will be housed as a digital exhibit of “Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE)” at ODU’s Perry Library.

In short, Yaco described the DOVE project as both “rewarding and amazing.”

“I used to be a political activist, and then I became an archivist. I didn’t think that the two could be combined,” she said.

For more information about the project, visit the DOVE website,, and blog,

Paula Kay Martin Smith visits the exhibit in Lynchburg. Photo courtesy of Lynchburg Public Library

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