WILLIAMSON - “I was told if I wanted a job, to grab a broom and start sweeping the floor,”, said retired educator Erskine Davis, as he was remembering the response he got from the Mingo County Board of Education upon applying for a teaching position in 1968.
In honor of the holiday celebrating the accomplishments of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Davis was one of several individuals interviewed about his life experiences as an African-American growing up in the Tug Valley area in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Davis graduated from Matewan High School in 1961 and from Bluefield State College in 1966 with a major in business education and a minor in English. After serving two years in the military, he returned home and applied for a teaching position. The response he received for his efforts was shocking.
“I was scheduled to meet the school board superintendent at a location in Matewan. When I arrived, I was told he had been there and was gone, and he had instructed someone at the business to give me the message of what they were offering,” Davis said. “I then drove to Williamson to speak with him in person and was talked to in a very unprofessional manner.”
“The superintendent looked at me and commented that maybe they wanted to see just how badly I wanted a job,” he said. “I was educated, well qualified and wanting to teach, and all I was offered was a janitor’s position.”
After feeling rejected and unwanted in Mingo County, Davis contacted the school board in Logan and expressed interest there. Within a day, he had signed a contract to begin teaching, and retired from there 34 years later.
Davis spoke of how that, days after signing the contract with Logan, a story was done on him in the local newspaper welcoming him to the Logan school system, and listed his credentials and military accomplishments. The very next day, Davis said, he was contacted by the Mingo school superintendent who wouldn’t hire him earlier that week as a teacher, now offering him a position at Matewan High School.
“I told him if he had a position for me now – he had one four days before that,” said Davis.
“My reply was thanks – but no thanks.”
“We have made great strides in our fight for equality, but we’ll never eradicate the injustice. We’ve made a lot of improvements but we’ve still got a ways to go,” said the retired educator.
Davis is a firm believer that the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s goal was to help every minority, not just his own race.
“He was a fighter for equality, for the world as a whole. The fact still remains today that none of us should ever have to fight for what was rightfully ours from the start,” said Davis.
“I would love to see ‘true’ equality for everyone without regard for race or gender.”
“I think racism is still alive – it still applies, it’s just better camouflaged,” Davis said.
In contradiction to Davis’ personal experiences, Nancy Hunter, 81, of Williamson, who spent 35 years as a cook in the Mingo County school system, said she has been blessed to not experience being discriminated against because of her race.
“I don’t recall ever feeling like I was treated differently because I was black, even as a child growing up,” Hunter said.
“I started out at the Liberty Grade School, which was an all-black school, and then I was moved to the Main Building Grade School, and on to Cinderella after it was built. I was always treated with kindness and respect.”
“I have no complaints.”
When asked what, if any changes, she would like to see in place for African-Americans, Hunter replied that what she wished was for everyone to work together to stop the drug activity in the local area, to make this a safe place for all of us to live, work and raise our families.
“No matter what our race is, this is our home and we need to all join together to take back our community,” said Hunter.
“Race should never be brought into anything.”
Also interviewed was Rev. Robert Settles, a well-respected Williamson minister who has been an advocate for equalitythroughoout his life.
“Once you have traveled over the country like I have, you can check the psychic mind of people by the way they act and talk,” Settles said. “The racial tones are still heavy in today’s society, but they don’t show as easily as they used to.”
Settles, who is 82, spoke with the Daily News about his life as an African-American youth, growing up in a very different era.
“Cafeterias were divided according to color. Blacks and whites could not sit together. If a black man was employed as a driver and a white woman was his passenger, she always rode in the rear … no exceptions,” said Settles. “Inside local theaters, African-Americans had to sit in the balcony, and according to reports, it wasn’t always kept clean.”
“I am so happy to see the changes that have occurred in the South,” said Settles. “There are no longer boundaries when it comes to races sitting beside each other, eating together, riding public transportation, etc.”
“It should have always been this way.”
When asked if he felt that men and women of color were more readily accepted in the past years in larger cities and metropolitan areas than in smaller towns such as Williamson, Settles replied with “very much so!”
He commented that biracial marriages, relationships and children born to mixed couples were accepted in greater populated areas long before they were in our local communities.
Settles, who has pastored the St. James A.M.E. Church on 6th Avenue in Williamson for more than 25 years, retired from the U.S. Postal Service after 30 years. He speaks fondly of the Tug Valley area, and is proud to call it home.
When reflecting on his memories of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Settles shared his favorite quote from the civil rights leader. He remarked that during the racial-tension-filled years of the 1960s, the slogan of “Burn Baby, Burn!” was often chanted by protesters.
In response, King was pictured and quoted holding up a book, saying “Learn Baby, Learn!” He preached the importance of education each time he addressed the public, adamantly proclaiming that, “Without education – you can’t succeed.”
“Where there is education, there is seldom room for ignorance,” Settles said. “We owe Dr. King a great deal of gratitude for paving the way for all minorities, not just men of color.”
“His dream was that all races would be treated fairly and equally, and be extended the same opportunities to succeed and grow - that no one would have the upper hand or a better chance at education, jobs or promotions than their neighbor, based on the color of their skin.”
Settles concluded by saying that he hopes his fellow community members always keep a clear thought and a thorough understanding of how men and women such as King made the paths for minorities a smoother ride as they travel the roads of today’s society.