Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The day after

The election was called a lot more quickly than I initially anticipated. As of yesterday afternoon, I expected that I would be up half the night. However, I started suspecting that things were going my guy's way when the networks started calling Ohio for him. My home state has bitterly disappointed me during the past couple of election cycles, and I was fully prepared for another round of woe. I was rather pleasantly surprised.

I was so keyed up that I couldn't sleep, so I watched McCain's concession speech at the beautiful Arizona Biltmore, which was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright (and which I saw when I was in Phoenix for a PeDALS meeting in January). It was probably the best speech of his campaign--smart, dignified, and funny. It probably reminded a lot of people of why they liked him.

I also watched the Obama rally in Chicago's Grant Park (which I strolled through en route to the Shedd Aquarium when I was at SAA's 2007 annual meeting). The restrained and gracious tone of Obama's speech and the event itself was striking. The campaign could have put on a raucous celebration, and it went for something more satisfying. It was obvious that many people in the audience were in tears, and I have to confess I choked up a bit when I started thinking of the broader significance of his victory.

A story: several years before I was born, my parents took an automobile journey through Virginia's Shenendoah Valley and into what must have been Prince Edward County (my father never mentioned the county by name, but I did a little research). They stopped to get gas at one point, and my dad got out of the car and started chatting with the owner of the gas station, who was white. When my dad commented on the fact that all of the school buses he had seen on the roads were those of "academies," not public schools, the gas station owner told him that the county had shut down all of the public schools because it didn't want to comply with federal desegregation orders and that all of the white children now went to "academies" that used former public school buildings and buses. When my father asked where the county's African-American children went to school, the gas station owner told him that most of them didn't go to school at all. In response to the stunned look on my father's face, the gas station owner said that he had grown up in the North and that he thought that his white neighbors' actions were appalling but that his opinions counted for little in his community.

Approximately forty-five years later, Prince Edward County went for Obama. President-elect Obama's victory shouldn't be taken as a sign that we've finished forming a more perfect union, but we've made some progress. Let's savor the moment, then get back to work.

UPDATE, 19 November 2008: A few days ago, my father, who periodically reads this blog, e-mailed me and let me know that I was a bit fuzzy about more than a few of the details of the Virginia car trip he and my mother took:

. . . Our experience did not occur in Prince Edward County but at a motel in Front Royal which is located in Warren County. I believe that school districts in Virginia operate on a county basis (as in West Virginia). We saw about 3 buses that had "John S. Mosby Academy" plus a huge Confederate flag painted on each side and the rear. I presume that you know that Mosby was a Conferate Army officer who operated primarily behind Union lines in Virginia. Per a court order, the academy was forbidden to use school buildings, so classes were held in the local churches (that was real Christian action on their part). I don't remember discussing ownership of the buses. The motel owner asked me to abstain from mentioning his views on integration to the locals. I read a book entitled "They Closed Their Schools" re: Prince Edward County, Virginia. As I recall, not all blacks were in favor of integration and not all whites favored segregration.

I thank my father for the corrections and curse my own frail memory. Warren County went for John McCain in the recent election, but I certainly don't think that most McCain supporters were motivated by bigotry -- or that Barack Obama would have gotten 43% of the vote in Warren County had he run for office in the 1950s or 1960s.

My father is absolutely right that not every white person in Warren County thought that the closing down of the public schools was right or proper, and some of them were less reluctant to make their feelings known: the Library of Virginia has digitized many records relating to the integration of Virginia's schools, including several letters to Governor James Lindsay Almond and other officials urging that Warren County's public schools be re-opened.

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