Wade Goodwyn’s “Reporter’s Notebook” on the NPR site deals with a curious encounter with the black principal of Clarksville High School. I urge you to give Wade’s account your careful attention because it highlights a tension that exists within the African American community, especially in small southern towns where it is incumbent upon black professionals to remain in the good graces of the white establishment. I could relate similar stories from my work in places like Tulia and Hearne, Texas; Jena and Church Point, Louisiana; and Winona Mississippi.
It is easy to write off people like the principal described below as an Uncle Tom, and doubtless the shoe fits. But the economic and social consequences of denouncing injustice can be catastrophic.
by Wade Goodwyn
While in Clarksville interviewing Vergil and Mark Richardson for my story about how the two brothers were falsely accused in a Texas drug case, I asked them to take me on a tour of their small town.
One of the stops was the high school gym where Vergil had been a star basketball player, leading Clarksville High School to the state championship game twice. We drove to the street behind the school, where the back of the gym faced a row of modest homes.
We parked at the curb, got out and proceeded to do the interview there on the sidewalk. It was deserted. We were facing the windowless wall of the gym, but for my purposes, it was fine — I only wanted to spur the Richardson brothers’ memories of a happier time in Clarksville.
Fifteen minutes of fond reminiscing about glory days and we were finished. After I turned off the recorder, we stood there a minute, chatting. Our day was over, and I was about to return to Dallas two hours away.
A well-dressed black man in his 50s suddenly appeared, striding quickly down a sidewalk from the middle of the school grounds.
“Hey, that’s Principal Chris Vaughn. He’s probably coming out to say hello,” Vergil told me with pleasure. The two men had worked together as assistant football coaches for three years at the high school in the early part of the decade.
But to our surprise, Vergil was mistaken. Coach Vaughn had gone on to become Principal Vaughn, and he was not happy that Vergil and Mark were here being interviewed by a reporter, even if it was on an empty sidewalk behind the high school. I explained that there would be no pictures, just audio, but that did not help.
“Why did you even bring them here anyway?” Vaughn asked me, annoyed.
I saw 40-year-old Vergil Richardson wince. The past three years had turned him from an admired colleague into someone who was considered poison. It was clear the principal did not want to get any poison on him.
I protested that we were standing on a public sidewalk next to a city street, but my impertinence only served to make Vaughn angrier. He leaned over and, pointing at the sidewalk, said, “This is my campus, and you have no right to stand here without permission.” He threatened to call the police if we didn’t step off his sidewalk into the gutter.
It was a stunning moment. The history of black people and Southern sidewalks is bizarre and demeaning. African-Americans were made to step off the sidewalk into the street whenever a white person approached them. If you grew up black in the South after Reconstruction, part of your parents’ job was to teach you the strange ways of the whites so as to keep you from being beaten or murdered. But behind the high school gym in Clarksville, it was not a white man saying to the Richardsons, “Get off my sidewalk.” It was another black man.
I stepped into the street first. Vergil and Mark looked at me, turned back toward Vaughn, saw the look of resolve on his face and stepped into the street with me.
It had taken us just two steps.
That’s when an older black woman emerged from her house onto the porch directly across the street from us. She began to yell at the principal. “Go on back inside and tend to your children. Go on back inside!” she kept shouting. “Let those boys tell their story.”
Vaughn stood his ground and glared. Everyone was mad.
“We’re off your sidewalk,” I practically spat. “Leave us alone now.”
Vaughn was having none of that back talk. He stepped off the curb, turned to me and said, “Now I’m off the sidewalk, down here with you. What do you want to do?”
I turned on my recorder and pointed the microphone at him. Vaughn walked away, getting out his cell phone as he went. We could hear him call the police as he disappeared back into the high school campus.
The Richardson brothers and I stood there looking at each other, nonplused, a little group of men bubbling away in the racial stew of small-town East Texas, 2010. The woman across the street went back inside.
Vergil and Mark were furious and embarrassed by the way we had all been treated and wanted to leave. They had already had a bellyful of Clarksville law enforcement, and though I wanted to stay, my motivations felt mean and selfish. We got into our cars and pulled around the corner to a car wash.
The police did drive by several times, watching as I interviewed the brothers about what had just transpired as we stood on the car wash pavement. The Richardsons understood it all on a much deeper level than I did.
They explained that the principal and the lady on the porch, whom they called Mrs. B, exemplified a split in black Clarksville. Their understanding was rooted in their experiences over the past three years.
They told me that middle-class blacks, whose economic position depended on the goodwill of the Clarksville white community, would have nothing to do with them after they were arrested, even after evidence emerged that they might be innocent of the drug charges.
African-Americans like Mrs. B, on the other hand, whose economic well-being was independent of the opinion of the Clarksville white community, kept an open mind about the brothers and would even rise to the family’s defense.
The interviews the brothers gave in that moment were tinged with grief and anger and even bitter acceptance.
Running away from the high school felt like a defeat. I asked the Richardsons to return with me and they agreed. Vergil rode with me, and in the two minutes that we were alone in the quiet, private confines of my car, Vergil became so overwhelmed with frustration and emotion that his voice began to catch in his throat.
We got out of the car and stood in the street behind the gym, none of us brave enough to step on the sidewalk.
Nothing happened. We waited. Nothing. It was wholly unsatisfying.
I decided to call Principal Vaughn and ask him to come outside and talk to me, this time on the record. Mark and Vergil looked at me like I had lost my mind. Then they started to laugh. I told them not to worry, that he’d never come out.
But to my surprise, Vaughn did. He was not afraid. The principal proceeded to give me the same geography lesson again: This was his sidewalk, and over here was where we could be.
I tried to change the subject to why he was so wrought up by our presence. Vaughn was not going to talk about that, and he started to walk away. He stopped halfway up the sidewalk and yelled back to me, “Vergil Richardson is a friend of mine. This is not about him. This is about you. I’ll take this up with Vergil later.”
He turned to go, but I wouldn’t let him. “Vergil Richardson feels betrayed by you, Principal,” I called. “He feels betrayed by the way you came out here and acted.”
Vaughn stopped dead in his tracks and stood rigid, like he’d been shot. He turned around, and I could see him think about what he wanted to say. He was furious with me again.
“I’ll take it up with Vergil,” he said once more, and this time turned and walked away for good.
The brothers and I stood in the brilliant October Texas sunshine and talked. It was time for me to go. Vergil said, “We’re going to follow you out of town.” It was yet one more racial light bulb going on in my head in a day that had been full of them.
After civil rights organizers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found buried in an earthen dam outside Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, local African-Americans in the South began escorting civil rights organizers out of town when that day’s meetings were over.
Mark, 38, and Vergil Richardson, 40, are too young to have been a part of that. But the idea that they would follow me out of town came as easily to them as if they were escorting me to the door of their own home.
Five miles out on Texas Highway 37, my would-be protectors flashed their headlights in my rearview mirror, and I watched as they made a U-turn to go back to Clarksville.
I drove on to Dallas, my pulse slowing with each passing mile.