Black History in Danville

Ciara Myers

February is nationally recognized as Black History Month and has been since President Gerald Ford declared it as such in 1976. But many people wonder, how it came to be? In 1915 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of African Americans from all over the country traveled to Chicago, Illinois. There at the coliseum, they saw displays that showcased the progress Blacks had made throughout history. One of the exhibitors, Carter G. Woodson was inspired by this nearly month-long celebration and helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH). Over the next decade Woodson, along with the association, encouraged blacks to learn their history and celebrate the achievements of black culture. Finally, in February of 1926, Negro History Week was created. 

Black history and Black culture have affected every part of the American way of life, even before the United States became an independent country. To get a better understanding of Black history at the local level, I interviewed the NAACP Danville Chapter President, Tommy Bennett. He spoke of his own experiences with racism and discrimination as a gay black man, instances of police brutality and white retaliation, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s visits to Danville. 

Mr. Bennett was born in 1955, in Danville, Va. during the civil rights movement. His kindergarten school was an all-black program sponsored by the Parks and Recreation in a little house on Goode Street with 15 to 20 kids. During his elementary school years, he attended Grasty Elementary, where during his walk to school, the white kids from other schools would push the black kids off the sidewalks and call them various names and slurs. This caused black parents to drive their kids to school. Mr. Bennett said this was his first experience dealing with segregation. Also, he talked about the segregated places in the city. At movie theaters, blacks were forced to sit on the balcony, instead of with the white people. There were two separate libraries, one for whites and one for blacks, which did not have the resources they needed. On the city bus, there were signs that said, “colored to the rear” and blacks were forced to follow the rule or be arrested. 

Additionally, Mr. Bennett spoke of Bloody Monday, a vicious attack on African Americans who were holding a prayer vigil for their fellow protestors that were arrested earlier that day. On June 10, 1963, police officers, state troopers, and a group of white garbage workers ambushed black demonstrators at the city jail with high-pressure firehoses and police clubs. There were 50-60 demonstrators and 47 of them were injured, some severely. 

The assault and the Danville Christian Progressive Association (DCPA), an affiliate of Dr. King’s Southern Leadership Conference (SCLC), prompted Dr. King to visit Danville on July 11, 1963. During this trip, he spoke at High Street Baptist Church and stated that “…very seldom if ever have I heard of a police force being as brutal and vicious as the police have been here in Danville, Virginia.” 

Though the past was ugly and even now it seems just as horrific, Mr. Bennett pointed out that African Americans have made some significant progress. In Danville, there are several city council members who are black, including the mayor Alonzo Jones. On the national level, Kamala Harris became the first female, first African American, and first Asian American to become vice president.