CHAPTER 6. MY BROTHER AND I AT
VIRGINIA SEMINARY AND VIRGINIA UNION
My father was the president of Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia from 1926 to 1929. Vernon Johns had succeeded him from 1929 to 1933. Then my father returned to Virginia Seminary in 1934 and served until 1946. Up in Philadelphia I had been getting into a little bit too much trouble for the tastes of my father. In order to straighten me up some, he decided to send me down to attend Seminary in 1941. I was probably a sophomore or a junior at the time. I don't really remember. But I distinctly remember the year because I remember being bolted out of bed by the yelling accompanying the announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (My brother and I received the 4-F classification for the draft because I had low arches and my brother had a growth on his knee.)
My brother, two years older than myself, also attended Virginia Seminary. (My brother was also full of the devil and had done many of the same shenanigans I performed, only with an older gang.) We roomed together in Hayes' Hall (which is now long gone). Thinking back on it, we had a great many laughs and would not exchange the experience for anything in the world.
Back in the twenties, Seminary fell on evil days. The lack of sound fiscal management, poor budgeting, atrocious bookkeeping, unpaid debts accompanied by declining public confidence, forced Virginia Seminary into a state of bankruptcy from which it has never fully recovered. Financially, times were tough. Some of the students could work off part of their tuition by going down to Rustburg to work of the school farm. I had to pick so many string beans that I actually developed an aversion to them and still cannot eat them to this day.
I had a year or two of college at Virginia Seminary. One of the teachers I liked at Virginia Seminary was Jerry O. Johnson. He taught English and perhaps Latin also. But overall I was not a good student.
There was not much to do at school and a large part of this was due to our lack of money. We could take twenty-five cents to William's store and come back with a soda and cookie and a nickel in change. Heck, back then you could buy a Pepsi for a nickel. Sometimes we lost the nickel on the way back to campus from the store when a huge dog would attack us.
Even at Virginia Seminary I continued my mischief. My friends and I got into a lot of adventures. One of my buddies and I would figure a way to save on our dry-cleaning bills. Hayes Hall had a four floor bell tower. A rope extended down the four floors so the bell ringer could ring the bell from the bottom floor. The building had an addition on the back. We found that we could get onto the roof of the addition and then go over to a place above the dry cleaner shop, lower ourselves down by a rope, grab the dry cleaning for the guys and get back up without being noticed. We would take out clothes from the dry cleaning establishment and wear them later. After dirtying the clothes, we would then return the items to the dry-cleaning store. The shop owner was none too smart because it took him forever to figure out what was going on and then he was still perplexed when he saw shoe prints going up the sides of his shop wall.
We were not supposed to have a hot plate in our room, but we did anyway. We kept it on the floor so that in case of an emergency we could easily scoot the little hot plate under the bed. We would cook hot dogs and beans. One time we kept a dog in the dormitory. One supper time, the Dean of Men made a surprise visit to our room. We had a hell of a time trying to keep the dog away from the hot dogs and beans under the bed and the Dean ignorant of it all.
At times the faculty would become overwrought with our mischief. We used to tie the front door to the girls' dormitory in such a way that they would not be able to open it. Trying to get the door open would cause such a stir and delays among the girls that many of them had to rush when breakfast time arrived. Being late, many of the girls would just throw on a skirt over their pajamas, push up and tie the pajamas underneath the skirts, and then rush to breakfast. When the girls rushed to breakfast, we loved to laugh at them as their pajamas fell back to their ankles. Well, one day a fellow delivering a telegram discovered the door tied. He untied it and reported it to the faculty. Then we caught verbal hellfire and damnation. The faculty were convinced that we were all going to hell. We felt bad when they questioned what would have happened if a fire had broken out in the girls' dorm. My brother apologized on the boys' behalf to Poodle Dog Williams, the business manager, and explained that we did not mean to cause any real damage, never having even considered the possibility of a fire.
At the top of the tower in Hayes Hall there was a bell of some 800 or more pounds, which student Leo Ward had the job of ringing. Teachers lived on the second floor of the tower building while the boys lived on the third floor. One day someone tied a pillow around the clapper of the bell so it would not respond to Leo's efforts. As Leo ascended the stairway to check out the situation, students pushed him into a stairway door well and locked him in. Oh, we had a great time in school!
A poor school like Virginia Seminary often had to take what it could get as far as faculty were concerned. Dr. Jordan was ninety years old. He had just one tooth in his mouth and he would suck on it wildly when he became angry. So we liked to anger him. Someone would start making some noise in the classroom and he would start to bridle and say "There's a fool in this room and I'll put an adjective to it if he keeps on." One of the students would shout "Put an adjective to it Doc." Dr. Jordan would respond "All right, there's a damn fool in this classroom!" Then someone else would imitate the "ding-dong" of the class bell and someone else would shout "There's the bell. We better be going." And Dr. Jordan believed it and would even cuss out the next class of students because he mistakenly believed they were late in arriving to class.
Our father never really figured out what we were doing. He was busy being president and had no idea of what we were doing. And as long as we kept fair grades, he has little suspicion that there was any need to check up on his boys.
That I was often in trouble is reflected in a letter to my father in 1943. Unfortunately, I am not able to remember the particular incident mentioned in the letter.
Virginia Seminary 10/22/43
Unlike so many other of my letters, this one does not contain a plea for funds. I just thought that you would like to know how Rowland and I are getting along.
Well, as I suppose you know, there has been quite a bit of contention and friction here this week, brought on by what I think are childish pranks and nothing serious enough to warrant the severe restrictions and the ranting and raving of some members of the faculty. I am glad to be able to lighten your heart with this bit of news, that they cannot attach a Powell's name to any of it, though the temptation to join in the mischief has been very strong. I think that some of our teachers expect too much of the pupils, especially the younger ones. It is useless to say that there are very few recreational privileges as this is too well known to mention it, but there should be some sort of consideration given toward developing privileges for us for as you know, until something is done, there will be noisy halls, people locked in and out, etc. I am aware that the school is not financially able to look into these things now, but, I am hoping that within the near future something can be done about it.
I am under suspicion too, I guess but in both of the incidents that occurred, both Rowland and I have been out of the building and can give proof of our whereabouts at the time. We have not been questioned yet and I am certainly glad that we are clear of this mess.
Maybe I am stepping out of place by saying this but, father, I do believe that certain of the professors have taken a little too much authority on themselves and seem to be trying to establish a reign of terror here. Things cannot go on like this. Many of the students are disgusted and talk of going home is strong. There is a deep feeling of resentment against the methods they are employing and this whole thing seems to be affecting every one's spirits. I hope you can come soon and quell the storm that is brewing because I do not want to see anyone leaving here. I know that you are a fair-minded man with a sense of humor and I hope you will see things in a different light as I cannot understand the mountain that has been made out of this mole hill.
Well, enough of this, I had not meant to write so much on that subject but once started it was hard to stop.
I am in the best of health and I do hope that you and the family are also. I just finished washing some shirts and I know how wash women feel.
I have heard that still more improvements are being made on our new home. This is very fine and I am sorry that I was not able to spend more time there. . . .
SUMMER JOBS IN CAPE MAY AND ELSEWHERE
While I was at Virginia Seminary, a guy I knew saw me on the street one day. He told me about a job as a bell boy that I could get in Cape May, New Jersey. I would not get an hourly wage, but my room and board would be taken care of and I would make tips. I worked at the famous old hotel Congress Hall. I worked in Cape May for seven summers or so.
Cape May as a town was very prejudiced. This suited much of their clientele, the Southerners. Indeed, the old ways of Cape May made it very attractive to Southerners. Blacks went to black beach which was a considerable distance from Congress Hotel. There was a black hotel known as the De Griff Hotel. I would often go to the home of Mrs. Persons who served magnificent family-style dinners for many a black visitor to Cape May. I even took my sister there when they came to visit.
The hotel needed a truck driver/porter to transport back and forth its guests and their baggage. I remember how my brother and I got involved with many of the local black kids. And there were so mighty good-looking girls in the area, but I did not get involved in anything serious at that time. Sometime we would go up to Wildwood to walk along the boardwalk and see the various rides and amusements. We would go there at least four of five times every summer that I was in Cape May.
One summer business was slow in Cape May and I heard that there was a job waiting tables available in Waverly, New York near the border with Pennsylvania just below the Finger Lakes District in central New York. It was in nearby Pennsylvania that I had one of the scariest moments of my young adulthood on a visit to Scranton, Pennsylvania. A buddy and I took a bus ride there. We arrived late and since we did not know anything about the town we went into a local bar that catered to the mine workers of the area to ask about lodging. The black bartender told us that his wife took in roomers. After he got off work he led us down into an area of row houses. We noticed that many of the houses had on a white night light, while a few had on a red light. The house we went into had a red light. It suddenly dawned on me that the bartender was having us stay in a house of prostitution that his wife ran. Even though we did not meet any of the prostitutes, the entire event was a very scary experience for me. Imagining all kinds of possible horrible events that might befall me, I distinctly remember taking my wallet and putting it in one of my socks before I climbed into bed. I was sure glad to get the heck out of that house the following morning.
From Virginia Seminary I went to school at Virginia Union in Richmond. I remember that I was a little older than most of the students in my classes. I did not care for the school as a whole that much because some of the faculty made me feel ill at ease with their air of assumed superiority.
I will give the reader an illustration of some of the attitudes of the administration at Union. I was already a graduate of the school at the time of the following incident. My father needed me in Richmond but he did not know how to go about getting in touch with me. So he thought he would call the school to see if they had a current telephone number for me. He called the office of the Dean, Dr. Henderson. Well, when I met with Dr. Henderson some years later, I learned from him that he had become very angry that my father had used his office in such an "inappropriate" way.
I said somewhat sarcastically "Dean, it's nice that you remember me." The Dean replied in a haughty, angry tone, "Remember you? I didn't remember you. My secretary is the one who remembered you." His attitude is one of the reasons why I never cared for Virginia Union.
I was not involved in too much mischief at Virginia Union. I managed to go through four years of college education, majoring in English. In fact, compared to my past, I was very quiet. But I still was not very serious about education.
I tried to survive the educational part of Virginia Union the best I could. I remember one psychology professor, Ms. Leah Lewis, who was so strict with the students that she was actually feared. I tried to keep out of her way, but circumstances changed in such a way that I couldn't get out of taking her psychology course. But I soon discovered that as long as I did exactly what she told us students to do that I had no problems. In fact, one day in class, she announced that there were two outstanding papers written for the class by the students and one of those was "Henry W. Powell." (She pronounced the name as if she couldn't believe it herself.)
When I finished college I can remember thinking how little I knew. I had not been a good student, although on one or two occasions I had surprised myself and astonished my professors by making an "A" on some test. I remember especially well one teacher who during test time would watch me very carefully. I think she believed that I had cheated to earn the "A" I had gotten on her last test and she was determined that I not get away with it again.
My brother used to laugh about my grades with the observation that my transcript looked as if it had measles (because there were so many red marks on it). But in spite of this, I did manage to graduate. In fact, my brother and I actually graduated from Virginia Union at the same time.
I had a great time outside the classroom talking with my buddies and hanging out. I worked in the school grille cooking hamburgers and making sandwiches. In addition, my brother and I had a jazz band (or a "noise" band rather). If father knew about the band, he would have been very upset because he was of the opinion that jazz music was beneath him and us.
One time the students made some home-made liquor. In a big jar, Rudolph Dykes put int potatoes, raisins, sugar and yeast. He put the top on the jar. After awhile the jar exploded and the smell wafted all over the dormitory. The faculty preached about "boot-leggers on campus" and declared that "all of you are on your way to hell."
There is one particular fellow student that my brother and I remember with a mixture of fondness, humor, and regret. Roscoe Williams had epilepsy and was very shy around people, especially girls. We became good friends and helped bring him out of his shell. He became so forward that he would pull some pretty funny pranks at times. Once he pretended he was having a seizure and scared all the girls out of the cafeteria, at which time he proceeded to eat much of the abandoned food. He would even visit us at Cape May and we taught him how to swim. Much to our regret we much later learned that he had a seizure while swimming and drowned. We still smile and laugh when we think of Roscoe.
One of my classmates was Virgil Wood, who later became a reverend involved in the Civil Rights movement. We did not actually share classes, but I would see him on campus now and then and we would talk.
Another classmate was Doug Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia. Although he is several years younger than me, Doug Wilder was in college at Richmond's Virginia Union at least part of the time I was there. Let me explain how it happened. My own college career was interrupted twice for at least a year each time. You see, the mental strain of a year of college was so great that I had to take a year off to recuperate. I was a four letter man in college -- D.U.M.B., so I didn't come out with the class I went in with. At any rate, I remember Wilder very well although we were never friends. In fact, I don't remember ever having a conversation with him.
My clearest recollection of Doug as a student is of a young man in a hurry. I can remember that I frequently saw him coming onto the campus walking rapidly (few students had cars in that time) or leaving the campus, again walking rapidly.
I can see now why Doug Wilder was always in a hurry --- he had a date with Destiny! (From Piedmont Area Journal, January 1990).
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