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Community Arts And Theater Project Highlights Richmond’s First Integrated School

Karen Wentt (left) shares her Chandler Junior High class photo with the students at Community High as part of the "Unsung Heroes" project.
Karen Wentt (left) shares her Chandler Junior High class photo with the students at Community High as part of the "Unsung Heroes" project. (Photo: Embrace Richmond Staff) Embrace Richmond

What can a community arts project reveal about the past and present? How can it spark dialogue and connect people in meaningful ways? The "Unsung Heroes" project in Richmond's Brookland Park explored those questions in a year-long initiative that brought together youth with the neighborhood's civil rights leaders. The exchanges led to Together We Rise, a community play that puts a spotlight on some of the residents who helped make history in 1960 and spent decades fighting for equality and justice. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find out details about the Together We Rise performance, Unsung Heroes oral histories, and the musical storytelling team at Embrace Richmond


Danita Green: Places!

In a hallway at John Marshall high school, theatrical director Danita Green begins rehearsal. She sets the scene with a popular 60s hit by Martha and the Vandellas. Senior D’Monte Rustin enters stage left, and looks out at the imagined audience.

D’Monte Rustin (rehearsing play): Our story is about a place, a small village hidden in a big city and the people who lived or once lived there….

That place is Historic Brookland Park. And Together We Rise retells the stories of Richmonders who integrated the neighborhood and schools.

Rustin: These people are like heroes to the world. They’re not just regular citizens, they are people who actually impacted and changed the world.

Joining Rustin in guiding the audience through the play, is Marshall High’s Jahonna Scott.

Jahonna Scott (rehearsing play): African American children growing up in this community describe Highland Park as a dangerous place for Black youth to venture with many stating the first encounter with racism occurred in Highland Park.

The performance centers around a significant day in history: September 6, 1960. That morning, 12-year-old Carol Swann and 13-year-old Gloria Mead were escorted by police officers into Chandler Junior High. Four years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, it was the first all-white school in Richmond to accept Black students.

Scott: That’s amazing, when you think about all that stuff happened in your neighborhood and a lot of people don't know that so when you're enlightening on it is very interesting and amazing.

The building still stands, it’s Community High School now. Students from there are also involved in the play, which honors Swann, Mead, educator and activist Ethel T. Overby and another resident who grew up in Brookland Park.

Reverend Paige Chargois: I am Reverend Dr. Paige Lanier Chargois.

Reverend Paige Chargois moved with her family from Jackson Ward to the Northside when she was about 11. She has fond memories of growing up there.

Chargois: Oh, it was fun, plenty of kids, from kick ball in the backyard to a wonderful park area that we could go to for crafts, for parties and dancing at night. And then we had the Boulevard where we we could go as well for a little restaurant and dancing, ice cream parlor.

It was safe, enjoyable and peaceful. With her parents involved in the PTA, Chargois was also one of the youth selected to try to integrate Chandler.

Chargois: We were taking into various sessions to say people might spit on you, they might throw rocks at you, they're going to call your names and whatever but just ignore them. Keep your eyes straight, focus on just walking through that door and know that we're behind you, that we're gonna watch out for you.

The work preparing to integrate Chandler Junior High took years. By September 1960, Chargois was already in high school, at the still segregated Maggie Walker. She says the textbooks were old and raggedy, and the science labs lacked equipment.

Chargois: But our teachers were so wonderful in letting us know: your knowledge really doesn't come just from the book and your knowledge is beyond that. So there are ways or things that they said that that eased us beyond realizing that we were getting second-hand books.

Chargois says a critical part of this history are the economic repercussions families faced simply by organizing for equal rights.

Chargois: If your name appeared on any legal document or even in the newspaper connected with the Civil Rights effort, you could walk into your job the next day and literally be fired.

(Music: “Being Black in America,” original song by Brookland Park Youth)

Together We Rise is the culmination of the larger Unsung Heroes project, facilitated by the non-profit Embrace Richmond. The initiative brought together younger and older residents to have conversations and record oral histories. Youth wrote stories about the neighborhood and this original song “Being Black in America" which includes a tribute to Ethel T. Overby.

(Music: “Being Black in America")

For rising senior Johanna Scott, being involved in the musical storytelling team and the play has changed the way she looks at Brookland Park.

Scoot: I would just say, I don’t what other word - it’s like magnificent. All of this happened in your neighborhood, where you’re from, a piece of history that affects so many generations and it’s going to affect more and more and just being able to see it and know all this cool stuff is where you’re from, it definitely changed my view on things.

Community organizer Leroy Jefferson Junior shares those feelings. He grew up in the neighborhood, and is leading a project for Embrace Richmond called the Historic Brookland Park Collective.

Leroy Jefferson: Working on this project has really opened my eyes to the particulars of that particular era. I had no idea how impactful it was on my race. I had no idea how impactful it was on the generation that I was living in. So I know more details, more of the particulars right now and it really is a lot more shaking to my core right now than it ever was, it was just a superficial that happened. But know I can see it in a greater light.

After the rehearsal, Embrace Richmond’s Executive Director Wendy McCaig said the project puts a spotlight on an important part of history. In a neighborhood that is experiencing demographic changes, she hopes the play encourages people to think about what’s happened since 1960 and the work that still needs to be done.

Wendy McCaig: Their stories, they’re still challenging us. Their stories are not over, like September 6th, 1960, we integrate Chandler, but then we're standing in John Marshall High School, that is predominantly an African-American school. Where did the dream go? And that's that's the question of this performance, is the story still unfolding and are we a part of it?

The Unsung Heroes project has also led to some unexpected and powerful moments. During a Black History Month event at Community High - formerly Chandler - neighborhood elders including Paige Chargois addressed the students. She told them about the day her Dad took her by the hand and walked her over to the stately school, with its towering stone pillars and arched doorway.

Chargois (speech): And he said Paige, you might be attending this school in the Fall. That was the first time I saw Chandler and now this is the first time and an historic moment for me, that I am inside Chandler. (Applause). They didn’t let me in, but I’m here now! (Cheering, applause)

Chargois: I said in all these years that we worked so hard to make a change and make a difference in Richmond, I said then they wouldn't let me come in. But now I'm here and I'm on stage talking to you. I mean, yeah, it was like throwing a match into kerosene let me because everybody got that transformation, that change and the power of it all and how even just a few little kids can make a difference.

Later in the event, Chargois gave another rousing speech emphasizing the role students should play in shaping the present and future, becoming history-makers themselves. The youth rose to their feet, some screaming, in a standing ovation.

Chargois:  I was just flabbergasted when I finished my speech. Students literally rushed to the stage and said, “Would you please be our graduation speaker? “

Nothing like that had ever happened to her before.

Chargois: I can tell you I left that school after that program, and I almost tear up now to tell you where I went. I went back to the house we lived in on Clay Street and I just parked in front of it and I thought and I cried and I thought and I cried for almost a half an hour.

Those years, in Jackson Ward and Brookland Park, led to this moment. The loving support of her parents and the community, says Chargois, prepared her to pour into these students.

Chargois: That's how profound an impact those kids had on my life. It was like an immediate connection to everything I was as a child. So, um, yeah, it was pretty special.

Chargois will connect with them again on graduation day when she participates in the commencement address at the Altria theater.

Chargois: You know I have spoken many times, in almost 40 Years of ministry, I've spoken in a lot of different places, but this would be a supreme opportunity that I will have the rest of my life to treasure

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.