1970-1972. The Woodberry Forest School Experiment

More rumination than poetry….the great experiment

We are coming up on the 40th anniversary (2012) of the graduation of the first group of Anne C. Stouffer Foundation scholars.  To mark that achievement, a bunch of us are holding monthly conference calls to plan a February 2016 reunion in Atlanta. Perhaps we’ll include some of the prominent luminaries, educators, politicians, etc., who were involved in the original experiment.

Here is my oral history submission from the archives:

It was an interesting, and maybe even a noble experiment.  

Prelude. Lincoln Jr. High had never seen so many white people! John and Rosemary Ehle and a couple of other people working tape machines and taking notes took over the library (or was it the guidance counselor’s offices? One was across the hall from the other). I recall that once we were tested and selected, we had to submit a preference for schools. I thought Asheville, because it was closer, but my mother did some checking and discovered a whole bunch of Greensboro folks were already in the Woodberry family. My father was dead set against the whole enterprise, I remember, and he had his reasons, but my mother was all for it and all in for Woodberry Forest School.

We took a Greyhound bus up for the interview. It was winter and it was cold. Snow met us in the parking lot when we arrived by taxi from the bus stop in Orange, VA. But on the return trip we met some relatives in Richmond, where we spent the weekend before returning to Greensboro and Lincoln Jr. High. I finished out the semester, but learned before Spring that I would be Woodberry bound.

Ron Long, Terry Jones, and Art Gaines led the charge in 1969. They were the first generation, the pioneers. I think they had some interesting experiences, but I’ll leave that story to them to tell.  In the second year, 1970, Ron Lipscomb, Kevin Miller, Wayne Booker and I arrived as boarding students, and Gary Mance and Wayne Williams came in as day students, tripling our numbers and making a significant addition to the number of variables in the social experiment. In 1971, Clifford Johnson and Robert Long, Ron’s younger brother, joined us, both as boarding students. 

Of course, it didn’t take long for us to discover one another. Kevin and I both came from Greensboro and from Lincoln Jr. High. (Five Lincoln students went to Virginia prep schools that year under the Anne C. Stouffer Foundation. Veda Howell went to Foxcroft, another girl went to Chatham Hall whose name I can’t remember.). I don’t remember if we came together officially or if we just gravitated to a center. Gaines, Long and Jones were the big brothers we went to for advice. Ron Lipscomb and I had classes together. And we all played football that first fall: Ron, Art, Wayne and Gary on JV, Terry, Ronald, and I on Junior Orange, Kevin and Wayne Williams on Junior Black. In my second year I gravitated to cross country after showing some promise as a middle distance runner the previous spring. Several of us continued together in winter track, though Ronald Lipscomb early on distinguished himself in JV basketball in the winter, as did Ron Long in varsity baseball in the spring. Was I really the first African American in the history of the school to letter in cross-country? Damn, I guess I was.

We got into the habit of sitting together in the dining hall for Saturday and Sunday breakfasts, which were buffet and informal (no coat and tie, and no assigned seating). It is amusing looking back on it, and maybe even a bit contrived, but at the time it seemed the natural thing to do.

My favorite teachers. Dave Bloor tripled as my earth science teacher, track and cross country coach and assigned academic adviser. He was definitely one of my favorites. I learned so much from Mr. Bloor, in the classroom and on the track. I will never forget him. Bob Vasquez, my Spanish teacher, started me off on a language learning track (he was also my basketball coach, though his best efforts at converting me to basketball fell short). Wilfred Grenfell ranks right at the top; I lived for his history lectures, and he, more than any other, bears the blame for my insatiable curiosity about Middle East issues and about foreign affairs in general. Robin Breeden, our dorm guy, maybe we called him dorm master, would invite us into his apartment for “tea and biscuits” and tell us about the time he swam the English Channel. How I adored those “civilizing” chats. And the Bond couple, Tom and Vicki, with whom I studied both Spanish and French, fueled my thirst for foreign language skills that continues until today, with Portuguese and Arabic added along the way. 

I have fond memories of running cross country. Those long autumnal runs, named Arrowpoint and Chicken Ridge, and the long 13 mile trek to Achsah, VA and back, introduced me to and acquainted me with the beauty of Orange County. Those runs were the ambrosia that nourished my soul. The habit I formed, of finding wonders and magic in routine and mundane chores, like long distance runs, would later prove to be a source of personal and professional strength. But I digress. We had a great cross country team, eventually winning the Virginia Prep League championship. The camaraderie of that team filled a social and a personal void for me. 

In retrospect, my most enduring thoughts about the Woodberry experience center around its well known and highly regarded honor system. I will make an addendum to discuss the honor system, how I internalized it, and how it informed and influenced me in later life.

Still, though, for reasons perhaps imagined and perhaps real, thoughts lingered and grew within me that I really didn’t “belong.” Those thoughts reached a height in the spring of my second year, a growing and gnawing loneliness that I couldn’t explain or even understand.  At the end of my second year, I told myself I would not return. The loneliness and alienation I felt at Woodberry, I would later come to learn, had a lot less to do with Woodberry and a lot more to do with me and my emergence from adolescence and puberty. It would stay with me through college, where, like a ship without a rudder, without an anchor, and without a means of propulsion, I bounced around for three long, uncertain years, changing my major almost every semester, back and forth from electrical engineering to biology to economics. It was actually an interesting combination. Finally, midway through 1978, the year I should have graduated from college, I left school at mid term, degree-less, and enlisted in the Navy’s Nuclear Power program and the submarine force. It was there that I finally hit my stride, serving four years in engineering billets on the USS Hammerhead (SSN-63) and the USS Michigan (SSBN-727(B)).

In the intervening years, I lost track of everybody.  I bumped into Ron Lipscomb on Duke’s campus, maybe in 1976. A girl I dated knew Wayne Williams, also at Duke. Kevin Miller (God rest his soul) and I had mutual friends in Greensboro. In 1985, I went back and finished college and upgraded my Navy status from enlisted to commissioned.  My tenure as a commissioned officer was a pre-set duration; I finished my four-year obligation and transferred to State and the Foreign Service in 1992. 

While serving the London Embassy, I completed an M.A. at the School of Oriental and African Studies. There I earned the credential “Africanist.” It would serve me well in subsequent assignments, focusing my studies on decolonization, resolution of border disputes, and transnational organization legal identity.

I stumbled on Ron Long’s name in the news in the late 90’s and got back in touch. Ron put me in touch with Art Gaines, who by that time was doing humanitarian relief work in East Africa.  Following assignments in Guinea-Bissau, London, Angola and Ghana, I landed a Washington job also covering East Africa.  I thought maybe our paths would cross on many trips I made to Khartoum, but it wasn’t to be.

Afterword. The integration experiment was not for our benefit exclusively. The purpose was to produce a slightly different environment for the white boys who would be entering a changed world, a multi-colored world. One might even say they (the white boys) would need to get an early start developing more nuanced negotiating skills to retain mastery in that new world.

We were funded by an external foundation that counted every penny they spent on us. There were always questions about whether there would be funding in outlying years and threats that our families might have to pay an increasing portion of our expenses. It wasn’t enough that we were being provided as subjects in an experiment. In retrospect, there were so many racial undertones to the constant hazing. The honor system we were constantly reminded of and grounded in provided no protection against a constant barrage of hate speech and racist microaggressions.

One night during study hall I reached my breaking point. Two known racists, twins no less, and one of their little whipping boys were outside my room talking about “nigger this” and “nigger that,” and “that little son of a bitch, Maxwell.” My mother had sent a pound cake and i took a table knife from the dining hall to my room to cut slices. Well, without much thought, I grabbed that table knife and went out into the hall to confront my enemies. No blood was spilt, but telephone calls to parents got me a meeting the following day with the campus disciplinarian, Jack Glascock. No disciplinary action was taken on either side, but for them, and for me, everything changed. From that point on there was no more shouting of racial epithets outside my door, but the whispering throughout campus made me feel totally guilty and unworthy. It was as if I had violated some unwritten code. Perhaps I had. When I packed at the end of that semester I knew I would not be returning. What I didn’t know at the time was that the pendulum had been set in motion and I was yet to experience the other side of its swing.

A response 50 years later to the whipping boy: 

20130329. Thanks for your e-mail. The years have passed. I would not have expected to hear from you, even with the e-mail I sent out to the general alumni crowd. It took some courage, moral courage on your part to reach out like this, and I want to acknowledge that courage from the outset. There is far too little courage left in the world.

That small event between you and me with the cake knife was a part of my decision not to return to Woodberry Forest for that third year. But only a small part. We were both young and trying to figure out the worlds we were about to enter. Whether being rich or poor, spoiled or not, was, over the long haul, largely immaterial. I felt at some level the need to return to Greensboro to spend time with my parents, to get to know them better in the few years they had remaining. To hear my father recite poetry. To hear my mother’s hopes and dreams for her children. I would have missed that had I returned to WFS. Looking back, I am glad that I remained home. Everything else worked itself out in time, though there were plenty of bumps in the road. But it was those bumps that made me the person that I am, that I have become, so no complaints there. 

That’s my story. Roller coaster ride through college, dropped out and joined the Navy, two submarines in five years, back to college, Navy commission, back to sea on an aging destroyer, foreign service assignments in Africa and the Middle East and that most foreign of countries, Washington, DC, wonderful wife, pages and pages of poetry I’ve written that I can share with good friends over aged scotch. Early retirement in a city apartment filled with books. Not too shabby for a poor boy from Greensboro.    

I never disliked you and I bear no grudges. I stopped doing grudges a long time ago. I have wondered how those Peterson boys are doing, but I imagine they are functioning in their world, as I am in mine, in the world I have created for myself. That’s what we do over the years, isn’t it, create our world for ourselves and live in it. 

I hope things are going well for you. There are bumps in every road. I have helped people navigate their bumps, and people have helped me navigate mine. It is a continuous process, one that keeps unfolding in front of you.  

I have meandered. Forgive me for going on and on. It is my therapy and maybe it works for you too.

Let me know. We can continue.


p.s.  Keep being courageous. The Portuguese say, “Coragem!”  (Have courage!). 

Additional notes on WFS from a different post

50 years ago this summer I was girding up for what would become the signature experience of my life, the integration of Woodberry Forest School. Here’s the interesting story in a nutshell. Ex-Confederate Captain Robert Walker acquired a mansion and a large plot of land in central Virginia from President James Madison’s ne-er do well baby brother, Willey, designed and architected by Madison’s partner in crime, Thomas Jefferson (though we now forgive them all). Walker started a school to educate his sons, pulling his oldest son out of UVA law school and installing him as headmaster, a post he held until his death 50 years later. (p.s. James Madison was a leading proponent of Negro repatriation, and we have Liberia (Americans), Sierra Leone (British) and Nigeria (Brazilians) to show for that brain fart.)

In the 60’s, the great white fathers of Woodberry decided that their boys needed a more “multi-cultured” exposure because the world, she was a-changing. They called up an alum who ran a foundation in North Carolina to dispose of the fortune of another alum who had been huge in North Carolina textiles and said, “We need to integrate. Find us some worthy colored students.”  But not yet. Wait until after the capital fund-raising project in 1968 so as not to scare off big donors. In 1969 the school also admitted their first Asian student, their first Jewish student, and their first known Native-American.

Greensboro, Durham, Fayetteville, Houston, and Washington, DC would provide that black human fodder. And off we marched.

This year we lost one of the original crew to ALS. That event has served to reconnect the remaining few. My re-entry to the Woodberry orbit came in 2013, when, you guessed it, one of my classmates made the connection between me and that guy involved in that Benghazi mess. Good guy, did a stint in the Marine Corps and returned home to run the family pipe business, found me and called me up. “Ray, are you that guy? What can we do to help?”  Small world.

Impossible to make this all up, I am turning my hand to fiction-writing after penning a two-act play I buried and over a thousand pages of poetry my grand nephew has been instructed to publish posthumously.

Continue to Bakery Memories

Woodberry Forest Memories
Shabazz Bakery Memories
Navy Memories

Afterthoughts become Prologue and beginnings
Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq

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