Publisher’s Note: William P. Andrews was one of the first nine Black students to graduate from George Wythe High School in Richmond, Va. in 1965. In this essay, he remembers that time in history and his visit to his 50th class reunion
By William P. Andrews
It was a wet, rainy, windy evening. The threat of Hurricane Joaquim had passed. Our excitement was high, as the time for the reunion arrived. Interestingly enough, we had no sense of what might happen when we arrived. Indeed, we had no specific expectations about how we might be received, nor was it an issue of any particular importance.
Our agenda was clear. We wanted to be there and make a statement by our presence. We had come to demonstrate that we were still standing, despite our struggles at George Wythe High School. We had come to reconnect with those students for whom we did have some pleasant memories. Most importantly, we had come to celebrate our triumphs over considerable adversity to not only be graduated from high school, but to rejoice in our accomplishments of graduate degrees and positions of increasing responsibility and authority in government, academia and the corporate world.
As we made our way through the mingling guests, we were greeted warmly and graciously by a number of classmates with whom we had had classes. We chatted amiably about former teachers, classmates, our families and our lives.
The Master of Ceremonies gave an overview of the pivotal events during our years in school. Of particular note was that this class was the first to have attended George Wythe High School for the full four years. It was also the first class to have its first African-American graduates. The agenda thereafter was relatively brief, and included offering an invocation and blessing of the food, remembering those who had passed away, and honoring those who were military veterans. A special tribute was given to a former principal, now in his 90s, who was in attendance.
It was a wonderful evening. The atmosphere of the reunion was pleasant. We sensed, and were told by some, that many of our classmates were pleased to see us. Ironically, we also felt an undercurrent of anxiety, an apprehension, which seemed to dissipate as the evening progressed. It was almost as if they, too, were taken back to that period, remembering their roles and participation in that unfolding drama called desegregation. In fact, a number of classmates and schoolmates remarked, “you guys were very brave … ” “I don’t know how you survived …” Others asked, “… how was it for you guys …” or “was it really bad for you”; one person even ventured to say, “… yeah I guess it was tough at first, but we all made out all right …” Still others were curious about what made this reunion so historical!
One particular encounter, I believe, said it all, however. One man approached the table where 3-4 of us were sitting. He introduced himself (we did remember him), and offered a welcome to us for coming. He then stated, “I know that I was mean and evil to you guys…I know I gave you hell … and I want to apologize for what I did …”
We were stunned! And we were pleased that he was able to demonstrate courage to make that admission and apology. I believe we all experienced a variety of reactions: maybe his statement gave some validity to the time honored belief that time heals all wounds. Perhaps it is the belief that people can and do change. Whatever the explanation, we were appreciative of his statement. There were probably others who wanted to do something similar, but, for whatever reasons, did not.
The question is: were we all equally accepting of his apology? That is difficult to say, primarily because each of us had unique and individual experiences. The emotional scars are therefore different for each of us, but they are no less painful. Some emotional scars never heal; they remain dormant, but are salved occasionally when certain memories connected to those scars arise. And even without healing fully, we did proceed with our lives uninhibited by those wounds.
How did we experience the apology? We believed it was heart felt and genuine. We believed him when he admitted having struggled with feelings of remorse and guilt for at least the past 40 years. We accepted his apology and acknowledged his willingness to come to us directly. We thanked him.
It was, I believe, one of those encounters that provided a sense of closure to issues none of us had ever forgotten. We departed the 50th Class Reunion feeling good!
William P. Andrews, Ed.M., CSOTP, LMHC (MA) is a Mental Health Clinician, District One, Probation & Parole in Richmond, VA