“I left Danville when I was seventeen,” Mr. Davis repeats for the third time as we settle in for our oral history interview. Faced with a camera and sharing his memories, the sixty-six-year-old resident of the Dan River region who had called and insistently requested to be interviewed suddenly became shy, wondering aloud how helpful he could be. I can only imagine the courage it takes to share painful memories of a childhood spent in segregation in a city that would rather forget than ask forgiveness. I put on my reassuring smile, and state, “That means you’ve got seventeen stories to share.”
“Seventeen years of nightmares,” Mr. Davis corrects me, and with that he’s off — recounting his childhood, his first memories of segregation, adages his mother taught him, lessons he learned both from hostile neighbors and from the kindness of strangers on Danville’s city streets. Fifty minutes of stories go by before he pauses long enough to be asked a question. He’s been waiting fifty years for someone to ask him for his story. He’s not going to let the opportunity pass.
It’s the great privilege of my two fellow interns and myself to be the ones finally to ask Mr. Davis and others like him for their stories in the form of oral history interviews. A unique sort of historic amnesia marks the Dan River region. The city’s history museum commemorates Danville’s role as the last capitol of the Confederacy, but little else. Stories of slavery, share cropping, and Civil Rights protests are omitted from the museum, and conspicuously absent from many other displays of public history around the region.
History United, an initiative of the Danville Regional Foundation and the project I’m working on this summer, seeks to change this culture of historical omission in the Dan River region by developing a multi-faceted approach to sharing a diverse, inclusive, and complete history of the region built upon the collection of oral histories. These oral histories not only fill in the holes in the region’s historical record, but each presents another astounding story of perseverance and personal triumph.
Mr. Davis’ story embodies this motif of hard times, hard work, and ultimately, hard-earned success. He began working at the age of ten, delivering newspapers for the two evening papers in Danville. With the money he earned, he bought shoes and school clothes for his brothers and sisters. At the age of seventeen, Mr. Davis joined Danville’s 1963 Civil Rights protests. He was met on the steps of the courthouse by deputized trash collectors with fire hoses, and chased late into the night by policemen with nightsticks. Undeterred, he returned to the courthouse steps the next day and sang “We Shall Overcome.” His grandmother was a slave, owned by someone else. Today, he boasts that he and his nine brothers and sisters own their own homes. When asked who his hero is, Mr. Davis instantaneously names Muhammad Ali, then confesses his true hero is his boyhood friend who served two tours in Vietnam.
If someone were to ask about my heroes, they would include Mr. Davis and the many other courageous interviewees who generously share their memories for the benefit of their community – helping to build a more complete history from which all Dan River region residents can learn and grow. In a region that would rather forget, it is imperative that the residents remember in order to forgive, face lingering injustices as a community, and finally move forward.