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Dr. Curtis Harris
Dr. Curtis Harris
Dr. Curtis Harris

Hampton Roads Community News

Old Civil Rights Leaders Are Gone, Fading, But Not Forgotten

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

A crystal-clear message surfaced when Hopewell recently named one of its local post offices for civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Curtis Harris, meanwhile former Freedom Rider Theresa Ann Walker was busy cleaning up after her 93rd birthday party in her apartment located outside of Richmond.

The point is old civil rights workers have left huge footprints. Grab a history book and it will explain why about 75 people recently gathered outside of a downtown Hopewell post office to pay tribute to Harris, who died at age 93 in 2017. Harris’ footprint looms large because he launched the Virginia unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in Petersburg. He pushed for the council ward system in Hopewell. Harris served as the president of the Hopewell NAACP, led sit-ins at the segregated drugstore and was even arrested, not once, but 13 times and charged with civil disobedience. His two oldest sons even went to jail with him. Harris became the first African American to serve on city council.

The local Hopewell post office was named after Harris, a few days before the name of Gloria Richardson, another civil rights worker recently surfaced in the obituary section after she died at age 99 in New York City. (Richardson organized and led the Cambridge desegregation movement on Maryland’s Eastern Shore after she began to launch sit-ins at age 16, in restaurants, bowling alleys and movie theaters). But,  don’t worry. Theresa Ann Walker continues to rummage around her apartment outside of Richmond and is doing just fine–thank you. At age 93, Richmond resident Theresa Ann Walker is one of the longest living members of the original 13 Freedom Riders.

While Georgia, Washington, D.C., and Alabama have the highest number of  post offices, roads, and bridges that honor civil rights leaders at about 190 sites nationwide, Virginia ranks high when it comes to honoring civil rights leaders. Their legacies are honored in Alexandria, Charles City, Farmville, Hampton, James River, New Kent, and Alexandria, Charles City, Farmville, Hampton, James River, New Kent, Alexandria, Charles City, Farmville, Hampton, James River, New Kent, .

And this is where Theresa Ann Walker comes in. At least 60 years ago, the now 93-year-old Richmond native said she decided to become a Freedom Rider after she married  the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, who was then working as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and serving as chief of staff to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Her husband pastored Gillfield Baptist Church, the second oldest African American church in Petersburg.

Theresa Ann Walker became a full-fledged Freedom Rider on June 21, 1961 about a month after other Hopewell NAACP left Washington, D.C., on  May 4, 1961.  To prepare for the journey, she and her husband sent their children to their grandparents, and they boarded the bus. In the early evening, they pulled into Jackson. There, Freedom Riders ran into police officers who arrested them. Ku Klux Klan members torched their bus and tried to trap the riders inside of the blazing bus in Anniston, Ala.

Police officers arrested all of the Freedom Riders, including Theresa Ann Walker who wrote in a note from her jail cell, “There are 13 of us in this 13’x15’ cell. There are 20 [white] girls in the next one — same size. Nine of us sleep on the floor.”

The rest is history. Theresa Ann Walker was released from jail. She began to address small and large gatherings. Anybody can change the laws of the land, she told a group that gathered on Oct. 16, 2019, at Virginia’s Chesterfield County Central Library.

“They thought because the bus was burned, people wouldn’t go on the Freedom Rides. My husband and I agreed, we couldn’t let this stop us,” she told the group that had gathered at the library in Chesterfield in 2019. “That’s why I went, and that’s why I’d go again if I had to,” she said.

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Records show few civil rights workers received a plaque, applause, or a trophy. 

But “wherever you come across racism, you must speak up and out and stop it in its tracks if you can, however you can,” Walker told the group that gathered at the Chesterville library in 2019, according to news reports. “There’s still much work for all of us to do,” she said.

Other civil rights leaders who marched with King are still living. For example, Jesse Jackson, age 79, will soon receive France’s highest order of merit, the Legion of Honour.  Andrew Young, who marched with King, recently celebrated his 89th birthday at an Atlanta bash.

In Richmond, Walker cleaned up her apartment after her 93rd birthday party but continues to share her story. Although she was beaten by police officers with the butt of a gun, harassed, and arrested, Walker said she still believes in non violence, even after her  husband, the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker died in an assisted living facility in Chester, Va., at age 88, in 2018.

“You’re not going to get anything done by violence,” Walker said, striking her dining room table for emphasis, in a recent interview in The Washington Post. “You can’t. There’s no other way.”

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